Advance Performance | How successful leaders embrace failure
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How successful leaders embrace failure

How successful leaders embrace failure

How many of us can say that we have a healthy relationship with failure?


In his new book Black Box Thinking: The Surprising Truth about Success, Matthew Syed introduces the idea of Black Box Thinkers – the leaders who see failure as the best way to learn, develop and create. They acknowledge flaws, do not blame others, or try spin to avoid responsibility – these leaders utilise the failure as part of their strategy for future success.

Matthew Syed highlights two different working cultures on which we depend with our lives and safety in order to show the different attitudes to failure. – health and aviation.  He gives topical examples such as Staffordshire Hospital’s system failures to explain how a culture can build up of hiding mistakes, fear of speaking out, fear of superiors and not questioning the routine because of the mindset. How many hospitals have not explored anomalies of data and continued high death rates because they just accept the system and therefore not learned or moved forward.

In comparison, the aviation industry has a completely different culture. Black Boxes are included on all flights to record data and discussions in the cockpit to acknowledge all information.  If there is a pilot error, they have ten days to record this error to be investigated and given immunity.  The results are anonymous but open to peers to learn from any mistake of judgement, mechanical failure or how a system is flawed so that everyone can learn.  From the results, new systems can be introduced and new strategies planned.

Matthew Syed acknowledges this Black Box Thinking as a positive strategy to learn from our failures of judgement, systems or a flaw in a creative mechanism.  Most importantly, he explains the need for leaders to take responsibility for a failure in a system so that a team and company can learn from its mistakes and build an improved strategy to succeed in their systems and enable trust for the consumers. This is very topical given the experience of Volkswagen and the emissions testing.

Syed also explores the need to acknowledge failure to spur on the creative process and entrepreneurship.   His chapter on James Dyson’s invention of his bagless cyclone powered vacuum cleaner shows how Dyson recognised a failure in a system and then worked for years to invent and improve his new system.  He actually made 5,127 mistakes when creating the dual cyclone vacuum cleaner – before he perfected it and went on to improve the vacuum cleaner further!

Google is another company which does not accept an ongoing system flaw.  The company currently carries out around 12,000 data-driven experiments every year.

Syed highlights the success story of Dave Brailsford’s leadership of British cycling in his process of marginal gains to improve performance.  Brailsford’s idea was to make a 1% improvement in many areas of the cycling performance and system, believing that the cumulative gains would be hugely significant.

Brailsford examined the weaknesses in the team’s assumptions, all the latent problems and system flaws, as well as issues which the team members felt affected their training and performance in competition.  Then he worked on strategies to improve each one to improve success 1% by 1%.  He saw each weakness as an opportunity to improve rather than a threat to success – and by improving the aerodynamics of the wind tunnel, painting the floor white, taking the teams’ own mattresses with them to different hotels and providing the preferred bottled water on tour, Team Sky did become the global success story they are renowned for today.

The team at Advance Performance aim to enable you to be the best version of you in your performance. Learning from mistakes to build on future strategy is essential to improving your success and leadership.  If you are looking for further examples of leaders who have learned from their failures and the theory supporting this strategy, Matthew Syed’s book is an excellent study to provide further reading to boost your personal development.

Can you develop a mindset that embraces your failures to develop your successes?

As Robert F. Kennedy said:  “Only those who dare to fail greatly can achieve greatly.”