Learning from Failure

“Success is not forever and failure isn’t fatal” is one of my favorite quotes from my friend Don Shula, former head coach of the Miami Dolphins football team and my coauthor on the book Everyone’s a Coach. This philosophy drove a great deal of Coach Shula’s behavior during his long career as the winningest head coach in NFL history.

Don had a twenty-four-hour rule. He allowed himself, his coaches, and his players a maximum of twenty-four hours after a game to wallow in that game’s outcome—to fully experience either the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. But once the twenty-four-hour deadline passed, they had to put it all behind them and focus their energies on preparing for the next game.

A colleague recently shared with me how she used this technique at work to turn a big mistake into a learning moment. One of our sales teams used an Excel spreadsheet saved on a shared drive to track revenue and bookings. The database provided an easy method to run reports by type of product sold, sales by person, and other key categories. Everyone on the team was able to access the document easily any time they needed information—that is, until the day one team member accidentally deleted the entire file! When the employee shared this news with her boss, she thought she might actually be fired.

The manager had a better idea. She calmed the employee down by asking her to start brainstorming how they might recreate the data. Together they came up with a few options: ask the IT department if the file had been backed up so they could just request a copy; check to see if anyone had copied the file onto their desktop, or recreate the file from scratch. This activity helped the employee start thinking in a positive manner instead of beating herself up. The manager did one more thing: she gave the employee permission to go ahead and lament her mistake as much as she wanted to—but only for twenty-four hours. After the required time, they would meet again to discuss next steps and to talk about what they both had learned.

What a difference a day makes. At first, the manager and employee were discouraged to find out the IT department didn’t have a backup—but then they discovered the manager had saved a copy of the file to her desktop a week earlier. So the employee needed only to update a week’s worth of data and the database was back in business.

Of course, the employee learned to be extremely careful when closing a shared file. But the biggest learnings proved to be the foundation for an ongoing trusted working relationship:

The employee learned:

  • she could be honest with her manager;
  • her manager trusted her to solve problems;
  • she and her manager worked well as a team; and
  • twenty-four hours is plenty of time to feel bad about a mistake.

The manager learned:

  • the importance of keeping her cool in the face of disaster; and
  • how to empower her employee to turn a problem into a victory.

As a result, their respect for each other grew and they went on for years, sharing successes and treating every challenge as a learning moment.

Give the twenty-four-hour rule a try. Celebrate successes but don’t get a big head—and don’t get too down on yourself when you don’t succeed. Keep things in perspective and remember: success is not forever and failure isn’t fatal.

Make it a Summer of Learning

If you want to be a great leader, you must make personal growth a conscious choice and a continuous journey. In the book I wrote with Mark Miller, Great Leaders Grow, we say that growing to a leader is like oxygen to a deep sea diver: without it, you die. Not a physical death, of course—but if you stop growing, your influence will erode and, ultimately, you may lose the opportunity to lead at all.

Simply knowing how to do your job today doesn’t secure your success tomorrow. It’s important to keep up with today’s rapidly changing work environment so that you can offer new ideas to keep your organization successful in the future.  Make time to read books and articles, watch videos, and listen to podcasts or audio books. Talk with peers or work with a mentor outside your normal work circle. Sign up for an online course or a workshop at your company. Join an association or a special interest group. The learning opportunities are endless—however, the time to invest in these activities is not.

Many organizations enjoy a slower pace during the summer. Or maybe you take your vacation during the summer. Either way, why not utilize some of that time and make this your summer of learning!

My wife, Margie, loves listening to audio books. She listens to business books, books that support her photography hobby, mystery novels, and a lot more. The great thing about this is she can do it sitting on a plane, riding in a car, or taking a walk—just about any time. I encourage you to do the same. Use some of your downtime to invest in your own knowledge. Take a book or article you’ve been meaning to read on that long flight or even to the beach. Listen to a podcast while you are exercising or sitting somewhere quietly enjoying the view. Get up a little earlier than usual and watch a TED talk online.

Keep in mind that your learning doesn’t have to be focused on your work. Trying new hobbies is a learning experience and exploring new interests stimulates your thinking in general. You might think of a great idea for a home improvement project while you are practicing your golf swing. And that yoga class you’ve been promising to try for the past few months might provide the relaxation and focus you need to come up with an original recipe for dinner that uses healthy ingredients your family enjoys.

Be creative and open to life’s opportunities—because when you stop learning, you stop leading!

Hello, My Name is Ken—and I’m an Egomaniac

I want to share a method for getting your ego out of the way and clear your path to becoming a servant leader. There are two sides of the human ego that can cause trouble. One is false pride—when you think more of yourself than you should. When this occurs, you spend most of your time looking for ways to promote yourself. The other is fear—when you think less of yourself than you should. In this case, you spend time constantly trying to protect yourself.

I love to start meetings with an Egos Anonymous session. It is a simple but powerful opening activity with a format similar to one used in many 12-step programs. Individuals stand up, introduce themselves, and then share an example of how they have let their ego get in the way of being their best. For example, I would say, “Hi, I’m Ken, and I’m an egomaniac. The last time my ego got in the way was…” and then I might talk about when I took too long to apologize or when I was impatient with someone I care about.

When you make this kind of admission in front of others it is an act of vulnerability that enables people to see you as you truly are, which builds trust and improves relationships. Try it yourself. Reflect on a recent situation where you reacted badly or in a way that was inconsistent with the person you want to be. If you are like most people, you’ll realize that your ego-driven episode was a result of either false pride or fear. You may have felt a need to win at the expense of others, or to be seen as smart, or to be accepted as part of a group. Both false pride and fear are damaging and can limit your effectiveness as a leader. The first step to changing your behavior is to identify the issue. Only when you realize you are operating out of false pride or fear will you be able to change.

To keep your ego in check, I recommend that you ask yourself a couple of questions. First, ask “Am I here to serve or to be served?”  If you believe leadership is all about you—where you want to go and what you want to attain—your ego is probably causing problems in leadership situations. But if your leadership revolves around meeting the needs of the organization and the people working for it, you are acting as a servant leader.

Next, ask “What am I doing on a daily basis to recalibrate who I want to be as a leader?” This could include how you enter your day, what you read, what you study—everything that contributes positively to who you are. Consider your daily habits and their impact on your life. Take time to explore who you are, who you want to be, and what steps you can take on a daily basis to get closer to becoming your best self.

Let’s face it; at times we all have poor reactions to situations. We need to continually monitor our behaviors so that we can make improvements. Your leadership journey begins on the inside—but ultimately, it will have a tremendous impact on the people around you.

Start now: “Hello, my name is…”

Applying Servant Leadership

Continuing with the servant leader theme, I want to share a real-life example that I experienced. To help you realize that servant leadership can occur in any organization, consider what happened when I visited the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

When you mention the DMV, most people would say it’s a government bureaucracy that often treats them as a number instead of a human being. I felt the same way at the time—but like we all do every few years; I had to go there in person to renew my driver’s license.  I hadn’t been to the DMV in years and headed to the office with low expectations. In fact, I asked my assistant to schedule three hours for my visit. That’s how long it normally takes them to beat you up.

I knew immediately something had changed when I walked in the front door and was greeted by a smiling woman. “Welcome to the Department of Motor Vehicles! Do you speak English or Spanish?”

“English,” I replied.

She pointed to a nearby counter and said, “Right over there.”

The guy behind the counter cheerfully said, “Welcome to the Department of Motor Vehicles! How may I help you today?” It took me only nine minutes to get my replacement license, including having my picture taken. I asked the woman who took my picture, “What are you all smoking here? This isn’t the same old DMV I used to know and love.”

She asked, “Haven’t you met our new director?” and pointed to a man sitting at a desk right in the middle of everything—no private office for him. I walked over to him, introduced myself, and asked, “What’s your job as the director of this branch of the DMV?” The man gave me the best definition of management I had ever heard:

“My job is to reorganize the department on a moment-to-moment basis, depending on citizen (customer) need.”

The director obviously had a compelling vision for his department. The point of their business was to serve the needs of the citizens (their customers), and to serve them well. What did this director do? Since he had philosophically turned the traditional hierarchical pyramid upside down, his main role was being responsive to his people and cheering them on—that’s why he was out in the middle of the action. He also cross-trained everyone in every job—even those who normally weren’t out front, like bookkeepers and secretaries. Why? Because if a flood of citizens came in suddenly, they would be able to respond. And no one went to lunch between 11:30 and 2:00, because that was the busiest time of day for customers to come in. Everyone’s energy was focused on the citizens and their needs.

This director created a motivating environment for his people. His team members were really committed. Even employees I recognized from past visits—who at the time had seemed stiff and jaded—were now excited about serving.

When leaders are servants first and leaders second, they make a positive difference in everyone around them. Would you like to work for this kind of leader? You’d better believe it. Why? Because he’s a servant leader who treats his people as his business partners in implementing the service vision and solving problems.

Think about what you can do to bring servant leadership alive in your organization.

The Visionary Role of the Servant Leader

I love the saying “A river without banks is a large puddle.” The banks permit the river to flow and give it direction. In my last post I explained that the visionary part of servant leadership is about providing clear direction. If people don’t have a compelling vision to serve, they can’t work toward a common goal. They can’t keep organizational energy flowing in a consistent direction.

Walt Disney provided a great example of this when he started his theme parks with a significant purpose. He said “We’re in the happiness business.” That is very different from being in the theme park business. Being in the happiness business helps cast members (employees) understand their primary role in the company.

Walt Disney’s picture of the future was expressed in the charge he gave every cast member: “Keep the same smile on people’s faces when they leave the park as when they entered.” Disney didn’t care whether a guest was in the park two hours or ten hours. He just wanted to keep them smiling. After all, they were in the happiness business. A picture of the future should focus on the end result, not the process of getting there.

The Disney theme parks have four clear, rank ordered values: safety, courtesy, the show, and efficiency. Why is safety the highest ranked value? Walt Disney knew that if a guest was carried out of one of his parks on a stretcher, they would not have the same smile on their face leaving the park as they had when they entered.

The second ranked value, courtesy, is all about the friendly attitude you expect at a Disney park. Why is it important to know that it’s the number two value? Suppose one of the Disney cast members is answering a guest question in a friendly, courteous manner, and he hears a scream that’s not coming from a roller coaster. If that cast member wants to act according to the park’s rank ordered values, he will excuse himself as quickly and politely as possible and race toward the scream. Why? Because the number one value just called. If the values were not rank ordered and the cast member was enjoying his interaction with the guest, he might say, “They’re always yelling at the park,” and not move in the direction of the scream. Later, somebody could come to that cast member and say, “You were the closest to the scream. Why didn’t you move?” The response could be, “I was dealing with our courtesy value.” Life is a series of value conflicts. There will be times when you can’t act on two values at the same time.

Every organization should have a compelling vision that includes a significant purpose, a picture of the future, and clear values. These three elements will provide the strategic direction people need on a daily basis to perform at the highest level and secure organizational success.