Leadership and the importance of failure

It isn’t every day that people think about high-performing people in the context of failure.

People rarely aspire to fail.

But failure is common and necessary.

As leaders, it is often falsely assumed that our path is a neat linear progression. Walt Disney was told he lacked creativity. Arianna Huffington was rejected by 36 publishers. And Richard Branson unsuccessfully tried to sell us Christmas trees.

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to share a coffee with thought leaders, entrepreneurs, professors, sportspeople and politicians. When discussing their journey to success, most highlight the times they overcame significant hurdles and obstacles.

This is because the experience of failure is a defining moment that requires people to pivot and adapt.

Subsequently, we grow and develop as people (and organisations).

A quote from Forbes neatly sums up the importance of failure: “Failure is the most powerful source for know-how and understanding. It teaches you about survival, renewal and reinvention of yourself and the organisation you are leading.”

So what exactly is it about failure that enables us to survive, renew and reinvent?

It is the soft skills that we accumulate throughout the process. These skills are the ones that separate successful leaders from the pack.

Let me share some examples of my failure to illustrate how they have helped me become a better leader:

1. Creativity

Failure encourages creativity. And creativity is important for us to stand out from the crowd.

Many years ago, I applied to work as an intern at the United Nations. Given that I was still an undergraduate student at an Australian technical university, it wasn’t exactly a low hanging apple. Unsurprisingly, I was rejected and over the following three years, I submitted a further 100 (yes, one HUNDRED) applications to different people within the UN system.

Over and over again, I was rejected. Yet I continued to submit the same electronic application.

It wasn’t until a conversation with my father one evening that he recalled a time that he experienced rejection and failure when I realised I needed to pivot.

In an effort to inspire me, Dad said, “once upon a time, I sent letters to every single shipping company around the world!”

Cue lightbulb moment. Letters!

I quickly changed my strategy and posted a letter with a handwritten signature to my desired supervisor at the UNDP in Nepal.

Within a couple of weeks, I had an email in my inbox with the subject, “your letter”. Now, I didn’t go on to intern for that person, but the small nugget of career advice he gave me in our email conversation set me up to secure one in New Delhi.

In a digital age, sending letters is unheard of, especially among us Millennials. So when a letter does arrive, it’s unexpected.

What’s my point? A little bit of creative thinking went a long way. And now when I identify a network whose attention I need, I spend time thinking about the best way to catch their eye. 

2. Resilience

Failure teaches us resilience. And resilience is important because it’s the ability to cope with change.

Mid-way through my PhD research, I had to do the unthinkable and change my supervisor. Not only did this mean changing the leadership team who would oversee my work, it means losing one year’s worth of writing and data. It was devastating.

And more than the professional consequences, at home, I was juggling a six-month-old baby!

The reason I changed supervisor was that under his leadership I was not achieving the result I needed in my writing. There was a combination of factors that led to this point. At the time, I viewed it as entirely my own failure as it culminated on the day of my mid-candidature review; a major milestone for any PhD Candidate.

In the office of a senior colleague one afternoon I said, “I quit, I can’t do it anymore, I am miserable!”

 She said to me, “Don’t let that person be the reason you quit, I will supervise you.”

Many tears and bureaucratic processes later, I found myself re-writing my thesis and receiving positive feedback on my work. It was the first time in years that I felt positive about my output and wasn’t embarrassed to send my work to my supervisors.

Resilience was not a skill that I had signed up to master when I started my PhD. But I have learned how to better evaluate conflict, how to choose which battles are worth the fight (usually they are not), and how to adapt to change.

3. Adaptability

Failure teaches us how to adapt.

Generally, when we talk about adaptability, it’s referring to a reactive response; we talk about responding to new conditions around us. However, what I think failure teaches us is to be proactive; the ability to adapt to what is required of us.

Earlier this year, I was appointed by Global Voices to represent Australia at the G20 Youth Summit in Turkey. I am often asked by people, how can they access this kind of opportunity, and how I stood out from the other applicants.

Many people tend to assume that my PhD studies have been a ticket to these selective delegations.

It isn’t (I have controlled for that!).

But 2015 was not my first attempt at applying for an international delegation managed by Global Voices. Last year, I applied to represent Australia at the OECD Forum in Paris and was unsuccessful.

Reflecting on the rejection email, I couldn’t figure out where I went wrong. I was a PhD student, I had chosen an important research topic; ageing workforces. I had a number of examples of leadership roles on my CV. I communicated effectively in my telephone interview. Why would I be rejected?

In truth, I can’t tell you why. But I can tell you, that in 2015 I adapted my approach to my application.

I asked myself, what does Global Voices want?

I decided that I must write a proposal about what is important to young people today, not necessarily on the topic I had the most expertise in. Moreover, it needed to flow from 2014 Summit’s agenda to that of the 2015 Summit’s agenda.

Some people might say that this is a basic exercise in “doing your research”, but I will argue otherwise. In my experience with Millennials, we tend to want to set the agenda, according to our own interests.

However, we must spend more time listening to what is required of us.

Adapting the millennial mind enables us to manoeuvre our way into leadership positions that open us up to agenda setting.

In sum, failure is important and we should own these experiences.

What are some of your defining failures, and how have they helped you to become a better leader?