Practical Leadership

How Do You Handle Failure?

Lead people for any length of time and you’re bound to fail.

I know there’s a lot of Type A’s out there who are convinced they never fail, but I assure you, if you’ve been leading for more than 5 minutes you have failed! So all you high achievers, you who’ve been number one at everything since you were a fetus, this post is especially for you.

Early in my military career I learned the secret to surviving failure, even an epic one, could be summed up simply.  As is often the case, the secret to keeping yourself out of the psych ward after a failure is expressed in a cute little acronym: FIDO.  FIDO stands for Forget It And Drive On, and is a reminder not to be paralyzed by fear or embarrassment.  For most people failure will be a setback at best and a debilitating event at worst.  FIDO is the way successful people overcome their failures and roadblocks to find their way in life.

Olympian Ruben Gonzalez 1Lt Clebe McClary, USMCFIDO is hero Marine 1Lt Clebe McClary’s personal motto.  After he was grievously wounded in Vietnam, McClary decided he had to “drive on” and not let his injuries define him.  I was privileged to hear Lieutenant McClary speak when I was a young officer and it made a big impression on me.  My friend and 4-time Olympian Ruben Gonzalez started training for his first Olympics at age 21, the age many Olympic athletes retire. Not taking “no” for an answer, Ruben made the Argentine Olympic team, achieved an international “Top 50” ranking, and competed in four Olympic Games.  Motivational speaker Jennifer Webb has even written a book about FIDO.For high achievers or “high drive” leaders, sometimes even the fear of failure is enough to induce strange and out-of-character behavior.

The difference between a man who fails 10,000 times before succeeding and a man who fails once and is a wreck for the rest of his life is perspective and balance.  You see, “FIDO” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care about failure; FIDO means you learn from your mistakes and put on your big boy pants then get on with the mission.  It means keeping your head up when things go wrong.  A “FIDO person” may never achieve what he originally intended because of a failure, but a FIDO person will find new goals to achieve and move out in that direction.

Not everyone takes failure so well.  I’ve seen leaders fail and refuse help from others believing they were “done.”  I’ve watched leaders refuse to take stock and evaluate their own performance, instead deflecting blame for their failures on others.  There are even those I’ve worked with over the years who are so paralyzed by the idea of making a career-ending mistake they become unable to make any decision at all.  Worse still is the “Type A” who is on the rise through the ranks who become an impediment to getting work done through an almost manic need to control everything.

The reality is failure is common and a part of the atmosphere of leadership. Any leader worth their salt has to be able to “take a metaphorical punch,” learn, and then “drive on.”  Both the fear of failure and wallowing in that failure are counter-productive.  Leaders are human with the same emotions and self-doubt every other human possesses.  The difference between high achievers and the rest of us mortals is how they deal with failure.

The lesson is this: don’t let failure or the fear of it define who you are. No matter what happens take stock, learn, then FIDO.

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