Embracing Failure or Risk?

What is it about embracing failure that has enamored some so-called leadership gurus, bloggers and talking heads?  For example, several years ago, I was listening to the radio on my way home when the announcer began to talk briefly about failure.  She went on to say oh, so very softly that “failure is just success dressed up in a different package so we should celebrate failure when it comes.”  I thought for a moment how profound this was and then came to my senses and yelled back at the radio “what a bunch of crap!”  Later that same day I made the mistake to look at a number of articles and blogs regarding failure only to find that most of the writings were incredibly sappy, filled with philosophical musings about the significance of failing.  Now I realize that for many of the authors, their intention was to point out that we learn from failure and that often failure or adversity has the potential to build, or more correctly, expose ones character.  No argument here, but often much of what is written about regarding failure seems to be, well sort of nuts!  In fact, one blogger even wrote that “great leaders fail most of the time” another one wrote “if you dream big you must be willing to fail big!”  Are you kidding me, I don’t want to work for any leader or organization that fails nine out of ten times; failure sucks, really, let’s not kid ourselves.  I don’t know any sane person who celebrates losing a marriage, a job, a business venture or any other endeavor in life!  Now before you are moved to reply about Thomas Edison’s journey of the number of times it took for him to invent the incandescent light bulb or any other number of his inventions, let me elaborate.  Failure is in fact inevitable in life, I get it; but failure should never be couched as an option in pursuing your destiny, dream or your organizational mission; and yes, we should never, ever let the fear of failure keep us from moving forward.  Fear is a very useful emotion but has the ability to stagnate leaders and organizations.

Throughout my leadership journey I had the opportunity to serve with some of the greatest leaders in service to our country.  Most of these professionals were risk aggressive leaders that never planned on failing; rather they consistently pursued mitigating the risk of failure in order to accomplish their respective organization’s mission.  Please don’t confuse “risk-aggressive” with negligence or a shoot from the hip leadership philosophy.  Great leaders always evaluate and embrace risk which takes courage, competence and confidence and is never done in the blind without critical evaluation and planning.  Embracing risk implies that a leader must be willing to make active choices that have influence on the successful outcome of a decision.

Noted author and speaker John Maxwell writes “A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are made for.” In other words ships are designed for the purpose of ocean sailing; they are designed to withstand stormy seas and to navigate in unfamiliar waters especially with a skilled and willing skipper at the helm; staying safe in harbor defeats the purpose of having a skipper or for that matter, owning a ship.  And yet just because the skipper has a ship that is capable, he doesn’t pull out of port on some false sense of bravado because he has a steel, sea-worthy ship.  He constantly evaluates the weather, the tides, the ocean traffic, the season as well as the cargo and crew he has on board; he is not afraid to ask the right questions, the tough questions always evaluating the facts and questioning potential outcomes in order to mitigate risk in an attempt to secure the right route to get to his ultimate destination.  The lack of information on any one of these elements raises the level of risk exponentially in determining the right course of action.  A good and responsible skipper will not sail out on a gut feeling that his ship can make the journey, such blind risks makes for good movie scenes, but more than likely will have a disastrous impact on the ship and crew.

Evaluating and embracing risk takes courage and confidence and is never done in the blind without critical evaluation and planning.  As I stated earlier, embracing risk implies that leaders must be willing to make active choices that have influence on the successful outcome of a decision.  A decision to execute a plan of action should always take into account, accurate information and/or intelligence, technical expertise and competence, availability of effective and sometimes specialized resources and a contingency plan (not a failure plan) in addition to a number of other considerations depending on the situation or operation all in an effort to mitigate potential risks.  Great organizational leaders never let fear steer their decisions; rather they willingly train and mentor organizational members how to successfully embrace risk in pursuit of their mission.

Excerpts take from “Leadership at the Front Line: Lessons Learned About Loving, Leading, and Legacy from a Warrior and Public Servant” by James L. Capra 



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