As a human development expert, I have been studying failure and its impact on leaders for the last several years. Still, when it comes to my leadership, I notice I share a weakness with many of my clients: I hate to fail. I would do anything possible to avoid failure, including procrastinating when I don’t feel confident.

My recent experience is a case in point on how we persist at a failing act for way too long only to avoid admitting the painful reality.. At the end of last year, my husband and I finally pulled the plug on the two-year business development project. For several months we battled with what Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize laureate called sunk-cost fallacy – avoiding a decision in anticipation of a painful emotion. Even those familiar with the concept need a reminder of how powerful the sunk-cost fallacy can be, and what it takes to fight it off.

For the last couple of months my family has been going through the process of closure – the same process I teach at my workshops, where my clients learn how to extract lessons from direct experience to make them part of our mastery. I am honoured to have heard dozens of incredible stories as my clients reflected on their failures. Here is my share..

It’s not failure; it’s pain in the aftermath that is most difficult to be with.

My husband and I took the time to honour the loss and pain that come with owning the failure. It was important to witness each other while we admitted responsibility, regretted invested time and energy, and grieved lost expectations. We decided to stay with this painful mix of emotions for as long as needed and gave each other permission to express them fully, whenever they emerged.. We agreed not to rush to consoling, problem solving, or glossing over the hurt.

The pain bundle needed to be carefully unwrapped. Susan David, a Harvard psychologist, quoted a recent study demonstrating that self-acceptance, a critical attitude strongly associated with overall life satisfaction, is practiced by less than 5% of people. Yet, self-acceptance and acceptance of our emotions are key to healing and learning. When confronted by strong negative emotions, David recommends doing nothing. That is to welcome our feelings and stay with them without trying to judge, suppress, or avoid.

Meditation and journaling supported me. Exercise carried out my husband. Long silent walks in nature healed both of us. Witnessing each other floating in our pain made it a bit easier. With time the heaviness of those moments started mixing with acceptance. Then the time came to extract and formulate the lessons we’d learned.

Strong focus does not always serve.

In our case, we came into the game with the sense of urgency and expectation for a pace of play we brought from our home country. Having locked on the target, we wanted to move forward every day in every conversation. We wanted to control every aspect of the project and struggled not to see every deviation as an act of sabotage. Needless to say, the attention span we had when given reasons for slower progress was not very broad. There were probably lots of signals that we had missed because of the clarity of our vision and the firmness of our knowing.

Soft focus is a great coaching skill. It also is critical for leadership – being passionate about one’s vision is only step one. The ability to hold the vision lightly and to open focus to pick up signals from the environment is as essential as noticing ‘Slow Down’ signs on the highway. Daniel J. Siegel, of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Centre, wrote about the ‘spotlight’ of attention, which highlights very sharply just a small part of reality. When we relax the focus and step out of the spotlight, we start noticing a broader picture full of important details and their interrelations.

When progress is slow, despite pushing hard, it is time to stop and run a quick environment scan. Long ago my driving instructor used to tell me not to drive faster than I could think. I’ve found this advice useful not only on highways but also in new business ventures. Curiosity and Not Knowing are the two most essential skills every leader needs to have in play all the time.

More to be shared next week…

For my doctoral research, I study leadership strategies that support experimentation and learning on the job. I run experiential workshops for participants to explore approaches to overcoming fear of failure, dealing with the resulting negative emotions, and developing personal practices for learning from experience. 


Contact me if you want to discuss how you could learn more from your experience.