Great Stories, Leadership

Failure Sucks

I spend a lot of time encouraging people to dream ambitious dreams and pursue them with dedication. We talk about how dreams may change, but honestly not very much about what happens when we give our very best and still come up short.

What happens when we fail?

I was quite impressed by this interview with Canadian marathoner Rob Watson minutes after running the London Marathon, and not finishing fast enough to qualify for this summer’s Olympics in what may have been his last realistic chance to do so. You can see it for yourself here.

Rob has a reputation for being open and honest, but here he goes way past that into raw vulnerability. The facial expressions tell even more than the words.

Many leaders I know can relate. In fact, it is often only the process through failure that brings us the depth, perspective, and perseverance required for meaningful success later. However, knowing that doesn’t diminish how badly it sucks to have to go through it.

There’s a phrase in distance running that applies: Embrace The Suck. It refers to facing lousy weather, difficult courses, and general crappy runs and races with an honest attitude that accepts the reality but doesn’t let it overwhelm.

When I am trusted to help someone through failure one of the key things I’ve learned to do is to be sure that we take the time to really experience all the awful emotions that come so powerfully. Spouting encouraging catchphrases and cheer up slogans is not helpful at the start. Rushing to get over it is empty and denies the painful truth involved.

The same is true for leaders in any organization. Optimism and moving on are great, but there is a time and place for them. There is also a time and place for acknowledging the breadth of the impact of the failure and letting it sit long enough to become a lesson and a source of future strength.

Dreams, goals, and ambitions are pretty much essential for leaders and organizations. Truly great leaders not only understand that failure is part of the process, but that rushing past the failure isn’t wise.

For those of you who just finished your version of the marathon and didn’t accomplish what you’ve been working so hard to achieve; I am sorry. In my own way I have been there too. You will get through this somehow, and you’ll probably emerge with newer insight and dreams. But in the meantime things are really going to suck for a while. Let me know if I can help.

How have you experienced failure in your dreams and what have you learned from it?