An Anatomy of Failure and What it Means for Your Leadership - Part II
Posted on July 16, 2019 | By Peter Corijn

In the first part, a methodology to analyse and manage failure was offered. Peter Corijn now covers a couple of notions on personal leadership.

1. Drive a culture where failure is accepted:

It is an essential element of innovation and personal growth. However, that only works if at the same time other aspects of culture are deeply embedded. There’s a quid pro quo:

a) High personal standards and accountability: “no-excuse” leadership.

Bob McDonald, ex-CEO of P&G and ex-Ranger officer, tells a great anecdote. In his first year as a plebe at West Point, he was entitled to 3 answers only: “yes/no”, “I do not understand”, “no excuse”. On the way to a parade, his grey cadet uniform got splashed with mud by a passing car. He was called out for having failed the standard and asked why. What’s the right response? “I do not understand?” The only good answer is “no excuse”. Drive that mindset throughout the organization. Never forget that you set the bar. Navy SEALS have a saying: “it’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate”. If you allow poor performance, then that becomes the standard. As a leader, you are ultimately responsible.

b) Candidness: practice it and make it a promotion criterion.

Candidness is a vital ingredient for those aspiring to learn from failure. It’s simple, but hard to do. Everybody loves it, until … it is used against them. The Arab proverb: “the arrow of truth must be dipped in honey” is definitely based on a profound human insight. Here’s how they approach it at the best Air Force in the world: jet fighter pilots do an afteraction review after each sortie. They asked a surprizing question: “who has a bad video?”

Every plane has a camera and the flight is always filmed. They believe they learn more from mistakes than from Mr. Top Gun who did everything right. The candid culture was strengthened by the leader: he went first with his video and allowed a direct, honest critique. Nothing beats personal example.

The ability to take candid feedback is deemed so important that those who cannot take it get thrown out. The Commander put it like this: “do you want teddy bears or the best fighter pilots in the world?”

Candid does not equal being a jerk. The truth can be told in a sincere and respectful way. Its objective is to help people succeed, not to tear them down.

2. Cultivate a Growth Mindset

There are two types of mindset: the talent (or “fixed”) mindset and the growth mindset. A fixed mindset believes it’s all about your God given talent. You have it or you don’t. And if you don’t, tough luck, don’t bother trying. It finds expression in things like: “well, that’s just the way I am”.

The growth mindset cherishes emperor Charles V personal motto: “Plus Ultra”, “More Is In You”. We can all get better at what we do. Talent helps, but it is only part of the reason for

success. These mindsets define how one deals with failure and feedback. The talent mindset takes it personal. When something goes wrong, they feel: “I AM a failure, I’m such a loser.” Feedback

is a threat to self-esteem. The growth mindset says: “I HAVE failed. What can I do better? Please give me feedback.” Nobody is ever perfectly in one or the other mindset. But we can change. We can decide to be one or the other.

3. Grit in the face of adversity

Grit is based on two areas:

(a) Passion. If you do not have it, do something else in life. Professor Angela Duckworth identifies 4 elements of passion:

(i) Interest. Simply doing something one enjoys.

(ii) The capacity to practice. Yes, our mothers were right: “practice makes perfect”. It’s only those who have passion for what they do who can endure the tedium of endless repetition. If you aspire to be a good guitar player, you will need to practice scales. It’s dreadfully boring. So much more fun to play the riffs of Keith Richards! Alas, you will need to learn the difference between a pentatonic minor and major. Or how a major scale is built.

(iii) Purpose. The best definition I’ve ever read comes from Aristotle: “purpose is where your talent meets the needs to the world”. It’s a belief that we can make a difference.

(iv) Hope. The belief that we can become better as mentioned in the mindset part.

(b) Perseverance. This is different from enthusiasm. Put even a motivated group 36 hours without food in a make shift tent in the rain and pretty soon the enthusiasm will wear rather thin. Perseverance requires consistency over time. Good old Victorian discipline beats self-esteem.

Is there a point at which one needs to give up?

Yes, there is. Grit is not the same as mindless stubbornness. “Anvil” is a case in point. This is a must see rockumentary about a Canadian metal band. In the early 80’s, everybody predicted they’d become superstars. But nothing happened. A fan of the early hour went back 25 years later to check whatever became of them. They were still going it turned out, stubbornly releasing a similar album after the previously rejected album, playing for 10 drunks in small clubs.

Their mistake was not grit (of which they had plenty) but never to challenge why they were failing. Did they need to attract better song writing talent? Yes. Could their image have evolved? Yes. Metallica looks different now than in the early years. Could they have changed their sleeve designs? Yes.

Failure requires a hard look at the “what’s wrong” (see part 1). Grit is not just banging one’s head against the wall.

Grit alone cannot overcome all disadvantages. There are few short men in professional basketball. But grit can make you a better basketball player, no doubt.

In a lucky twist of fate, Anvil did become world-famous via this film. Luck matters: health, the family and country we are born into, the love and support we get, not being at the wrong place at the wrong time on 9/11, the lottery of the gene pool that makes some supermodels and others perhaps less so.

However, what is “luck”?

“Luck is what we have left when we have given 100% of ourselves.”


*Peter Corijn is CEO and Founder of consultancy firm VUCASTAR. He is also a sought after keynote speaker and a true VUCA and Leadership expert. He is a former Senior Executive with major international experience. Until mid 2017, he was in the C-Suite of Imperial Brands (“IBG” - a FTSE top 20 Company) as Chairman of the Operating Committee, Global CMO and President of several Divisions. He was also Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Fontem, an IBG start-up (“Blu”).  In 2017/18, he was Senior Advisor with McKinsey.  Prior, he was Vice President at P&G, where he has held several CEO roles. His last assignment was as Vice President Shave Care (Gillette) for the CEEMEA region. Peter has worked around the world and has lived in London, Bristol, Geneva, Casablanca, Jeddah, Warsaw and Brussels. He is also an aspiring artist trying to “make it” in the music industry