5 Things Failure Teaches You (from Leaders Who Failed)

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In a recent webinar focusing on building innovative cultures, we talked a lot about failure. In fact, we had a whole slide dedicated to it (you can listen to the webinar recording here). The thing about failure is that isn’t particularly productive unless you know how to learn from it. Here is a great article about how to do just that, by Amy C. Edmonson of Harvard Business School.

After reading that article, if you’re still afraid of “failing” just a little bit, here are five prominent leaders that found success when faced with a discouraging situation.

Your outlook matters

Some view failure as a moment to just pack it up and go home. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, however, is not one of those people. Having acquired LivingSocial, a Groupon Competitor, Bezos lost $175 million on the deal; a failure that he takes in stride. “I’ve made billions of dollars of failures at Amazon.com,” he said in an article. “Literally billions. … Companies that don’t embrace failure and continue to experiment eventually get in the desperate position where the only thing they can do is make a Hail Mary bet at the end of their corporate existence.” The key differentiator is his outlook. Currently Bezos is worth approximately $30 billion, with Amazon holding strong to its revenue. Through Bezos, we learn that shortcomings don’t always have to be the end of the world.

Don’t forget what you do know

Sometimes failure occurs when you lose sight of what you’re really passionate about. GoPro CEO, Nick Woodman knows that through personal experience. Having failed at starting two companies, marketing and eCommerce sites, Woodman went back to square one, but this time with his roots in mind.  An avid surfer, Woodman came up with the GoPro concept as a means for competitive athletes to document their practices via video. While these experiences created a fear of failure in Woodman, they also inspired him to focus on his passions, his work ethic, and commitment to success. Woodman is now one of the youngest billionaires in the world with GoPro valued at north of 2 billion dollars. “Evolve or die,” he says in Forbes. “We’re confident in our ability to innovate and have products that people will be excited about.”

You don’t need to start from scratch

When your first idea doesn’t pan out it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to back to the drawing board. Kathryn Minshew, CEO of The Muse, learned that after having started Pretty Young Professionals (PYP) and finding herself at creative and strategic odds with her partners. Instead of packing up and giving up on the idea, she made the pivotal decision to work on the The Muse, with PYP employees in tow. “I learned from that experience that even when you feel you’ve lost everything, you haven’t lost what you learned from that experience” explained Minshew in an article on Backchannel. Presently, The Muse has over 50 million users on its platform every year and cleared $16 million in a Series B funding.

It’s how you respond that matters

Leaders and entrepreneurs shouldn’t look at their past failings as nails that shut the coffin on your future success. Case in point, take a look at Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple. We all remember the Apple Maps fiasco, which cost the company $30 billion in stock market value. It was a complete embarrassment for the company, but Tim Cook responded by taking ownership of the failure and promised to do better, a move that gained him a lot of respect as the CEO. With a current net quarterly profit of $10.5 billion, he did just that. Everyone makes mistakes, but it’s what you do with those mistakes that distinguish you as a leader.

If at first you don’t succeed, try again

Failure is no stranger to Dyson CEO James Dyson. Having spent 15 years and creating 5,127 vacuum prototypes, Dyson’s persistence is the ultimate testament to overcoming failures. “We have to embrace failure and almost get a kick out of it. Not in a perverse way, but in a problem-solving way,” explains Dyson. “Life is a mountain of solvable problems and I enjoy that.” Enjoying profits up 13 percent last year, Dyson’s persistence worked in his favor. This goes to show that through the trials and tribulations there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, you just have to work at it.

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