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October 11, 2019 Friday 09:29:54 AM IST

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What is the opposite of success? The most immediate answer that comes to our mind is failure. But, delving deep into this question, one thing becomes obvious. Failure is not the opposite of success. It is part of success. Failure is the most potential source for know-how and understanding.  It educatesus about survival, revitalisation and reinvention of oneself and the organization you are leading. If you never failed at anything, you will never dare out of your comfort zone or try new ways to seize opportunities previously unseen.  At the end of the day, it’s what you do with failure that defines your character as a leader. Some of the most celebrated leaders in history failed at one time or another. Their ability to hold themselves accountable enabled them to persevere, become better leaders and build their legacies. These are three lessons about failure that can be imbibed from lives of some legendary leaders.

Confront your failure

Whilemany individuals try to run away from or cover the experienced failure, great leaders take the time to reflect upon the situation.  They confront the problem head-on and assess what they could have done better and recognize the lessons learned. At the age of sixty-five, after running a restaurant for several years, Colonel Harland Sanders found himself penniless. Being a retired soldier, he received his first social security cheque which was for one hundred and five dollars. Harland Sanders was very passionate about his fried chicken recipe and people around him really loved it. When most people consider retirement as the end of a challenging life, Harland opted to try his luck in selling his new chicken recipe. Harland travelled door to door including houses and restaurants in the local area. He was looking for a right partner to promote his chicken recipe but was met with little enthusiasm. Without giving up, he travelled by car to various restaurants and cooked his fried chicken on the spot for hotel owners. He was rejected 1008 times before his chicken was accepted once.Sanders wouldn't let anything or anyone defeat him. At age 90, Sanders passed away due to pneumonia. At that time, there were around 6,500 locations of Kentucky Fried Chicken that he found in 50 countries.

Trust your gut


Allow failure to make you stronger and wiser.  With this attitude, you must become fearless when venturinginto new endeavours. As such, failure should help you to trust your gut and thus empower you to make better decisions; based on your failed experiences, you will be better equipped to navigate new situations. Walt Disney is reminisced for his many successes - for Mickey Mouse, for Donald Duck, for Disneyland. But he also saw his share of hard failures including a bankruptcy, a mental breakdown and much more. In early 1921, Disney built his first company, called Laugh-O-Gram Studio, and secured a contract for six animation projects. Shortly after, however, the business went through a struggle to generate enough money to stay afloat. Each day, Disney slept on the floor of the studio office, showered at the train station, and ate cold beans from a can. Despite his efforts, in 1923, Laugh-O-Gram went bankrupt and Disney was back to living in relative poverty. Disney, however, refused to give up. He got back on his feet and once again, reached out to film distributors to showcase his animation, Alice’s Wonderland. Disney was third time lucky. Margaret Winkler, a New York film distributor, got back to Disney and offered 1,500 dollars for six Alice comedies. The animation was well received, and the distributor ordered more animations. Shortly after, Disney and his brother, Roy, created the Disney Brothers Studio - ‌which later became The Walt Disney Company‍. The rest is history. Disney’s story is an inspiring example of someone who grew up in less than ideal conditions, faced adversity and failure, and yet, turned their fortunes around to achieve extraordinary success.

Second chances

Failure is a wake-up call for the next opportunity. You can now narrow down the prospects that lie around, beneath and beyond what you seek - thus widening your field of opportunity.  As such, you must never overlookthe fact that second chances are all around you. Soichiro Honda laboured night and day in the process of developing the concept of the piston ring but was rejected by Toyota because the rings did not meet their standards. Then, after many years of hardwork and redesign, he won a contract with Toyota. Meanwhile, the Japanese government was gearing up for war.To save the contract, Soichiro Honda had to build a factory to supply to Toyota, but building materials became scarce. He developed a new concrete-making process that equipped him to build the factory and start production. But the factory was bombed twice and steel became a material in short supply. He started gathering surplus gasoline cans thrown away by US fighters which became the new raw material for his rebuilt manufacturing process. At this juncture, an earthquake destroyed the factory. After the war, gasoline shortage forced people to walk or use bicycles. Honda designed a small engine and attached it to his bicycle. His friends wanted one, and even though he tried, there was a scarcity for raw materials. Soichiro Honda wrote to 19,000 bicycles shop owners and, in amotivating letter, requested them to help him revive Japan. 6,000 replied and provided him what little money they could to build his tiny bicycle engines. Honda succeeded because failure was simply not considered a possibility.


Sometimes, despite your best efforts, things just don’t go as planned. You experience challenges, setbacks and outright failures. To become a great leader, you have to be comfortable with things going wrong. Great leaders consider failures as wonderful learning opportunities, rather than stumbling blocks. As long as you learn from the mistakes you make, failure is a worthwhile endeavour.


Dr. Manu Melwin Joy

The writer is an Assistant Professor at School of Management Studies, CUSAT

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