Healthy leaders don’t overly dwell on setbacks as proof they are unfit for leadership. What’s more, we have trouble understanding what really leads to success or failure.
As a perfectionist, I tend to judge my own setbacks harshly. I’m getting better at it, but it is still a thought process I have to resist.
A couple of reading selections that I would like to share with you are helping further illuminate why it’s so important to not get bogged down when things don’t go exactly as planned.
Let’s start with some quotes from the book The CEO Next Door by Elena L. Botelho and Kim R. Powell. The authors advise readers to “make mistakes your laboratory.” In a section of the book where the authors drive home the importance of the words we use, they talk about CEOs intentionally not using the word “failure.”
Avoidance of the word failure isn’t spin for the CEOs. It reflects their true attitude: errors aren’t fearsome embarrassments but inevitabilities that provide the most reliable laboratory for future improvements.Page 33
This positive thinking goes beyond having a good attitude. In the authors’ interviews and research, they saw a positive correlation to the CEO’s work.
CEO candidates who use the word failure in talking about their mistakes were half as likely to deliver a strong performance in the seat as CEOs who did not.Page 33
Using the right words and having a positive attitude are certainly not the only factors in strong leadership, but it does make a difference.
Understanding How Successes or Failures Happen
Here’s something I noticed while I was back in business school: every textbook and article had an explanation for why one company succeeded and one failed.
And sometimes that logic was consistent. Other times, articles felt like they were contradicting themselves. The risk that this one group took was prescient because they were able to take advantage of a change in the market. The risk that another group took was absolutely foolish because they missed the change in the market.
The outcome was the only thing that mattered.
To take that a step further, I look at some of the CEOs we are supposed to admire, and I am disappointed in the level of priority they choose to place (or not to place) on their family. Yes, this person is successful if we judge by their business outcomes. Is that really enough?
As is so often the case, I found a book that much better explains some of my frustration with other business studies.
In the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, author Daniel Kahneman delves deeply into the way that we think and the common errors that we make. He focuses on a variety of illusions that we create for ourselves.
The tendency to revise the history of one’s beliefs in light of what actually happened produces a robust cognitive illusion.
Hindsight bias has pernicious effects on the evaluations of decision makers. It leads observers to assess the quality of a decision not by whether the process was sound but by whether its outcome was good or bad.Page 203
Kahneman went on to describe the negative effects of a leader who makes bold gambles but doesn’t recognize how negatively the outcome could have been. We are all in awe at the courage instead of concerned by the recklessness.
Consumers have a hunger for a clear message about the determinants of success and failure in business, and they need stories that offer a sense of understanding, however illusory.Page 206
If we naturally have a hard time of classifying success and failure because we rely too strongly on the outcomes, then we need to reassess our feelings towards the results of our efforts. Victories should not be a shining example of how to accomplish each step in a project. There is bad and good within that effort. It’s harder to remember this with setbacks, but we need to look for the bad and good in those efforts, as well.
I have to admit I am still wrapping my head around this cognitive illusion. But overall, I feel more freed by the realization.
Once the outcome is not the only measure, we can focus more on learning and improving each step of the process. Yes, the outcomes still matter, but the rest of it matters, too.
I can feel more comfortable with Reid Hoffman’s antiperfectionist manifesto: “If you aren’t embarrassed by the first version of your product, you shipped too late.”
I challenge you to look back at recently completed work and look for the good and the bad. I’m going through this process now, and I think you will get a lot out of it.