Winning through Failure

Sarah Zumbrun gave a talk at the recent Training Days conference in Denver that fired the blood in my veins. Her topic? Here it is:

Want to be a good tech leader? Fail and fail often.

Wow! Sarah's topic hit hard and took me back to my first certification experience in the late 1990s. People on my team were in perpetual study mode for the Oracle certification exams, wanting to pass but fearful to try. One day I found myself at a conference staring down some discounted pricing. So I signed up and sat for all four exams in a two-day period.

And I failed.

And I made sure that everyone back at the office knew that I had failed. 

Because I wanted my friends to get past the fear. I wanted them to succeed. I wanted them to take the exams, because risking temporary failure is a necessary step on the road to lasting success. 

Successful people sharing their struggles and mistakes help others to see past their own failures and weaknesses toward the possibility of attaining similar success. Seeing my boss as a magical, never-get-it-wrong person doesn't help me to visualize my way toward working at her level. But seeing her as a struggling fellow human who is also facing challenges and overcoming mistakes, now that's inspiring and gives me hope of someday following in her footsteps.

Failure also catalyzes learning. Recently I damaged a set of cottered unicycle cranks. Cottered cranks haven't been used in decades, and I rushed in too fast to work on them without stepping back and doing my homework on the right procedures. I pride myself on my skills as a bike mechanic, and frankly wanted at first to just bury my failure, to quietly buy new parts and slip them on and say nothing and no one would be the wiser.

See Cottered Crank Caper, Part I for the full story of my mechanical disaster.

Instead I sought out an expert, did some reading, learned a few things, and bought a new tool to use in installing and removing cotters without damage. I'll be an even better bicycle mechanic, and with additional tools and parts that few today have experience with.

And I did not neglect the neighbor boy for whom I was repairing the unicycle. He benefits from hearing me recount my mistake and how it could have been avoided. He sees how I stepped up to remedy the damage and learn better for the next time. I gave him a window into my failure, and the lessons learned that will help him grow as well as myself.

Find out how it all ended in Cottered Crank Caper, Conclusion

Openness about weakness and failure doesn't bring us down. Quite the opposite. It lifts others up. Failure handled well becomes an opportunity for learning and personal growth. And that's not just for yourself, but also for your friends and family and others in your sphere of influence.