One of the most important lessons from Charlene Li’s book Open Leadership — and one that I failed (so to speak) to address in last Friday’s post about the book — is the idea that it’s OK to fail. This is one of the most valuable lessons from the book, and one that risk-averse institutions like colleges and universities ought to embrace.
“Success,” Winston Churchill said, “is the ability to go from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” Li quotes Churchill in her chapter on the value of failure (Chapter 9, “The Failure Imperative”), and points out that “by mastering failure, [leaders] create an environment in which risk taking is encouraged and recovery from failure becomes a skill that everyone in the organization possesses.”
Li then poses a question that is key for higher education:
In your organization, how important is it for people to be risk takers, to be innovators? If initiative and innovation are key to your future success, then you need to take a long hard look at how you personally create trust and approach failure, because it will be reflected back in the culture that you create.
Colleges and universities tend to be mainly conservative, cautious institutions. Not many of our leaders got to where they are by taking huge risks in their careers. And so, the culture that rewards a cautious approach is not likely to reward risk takers — especially if they fail.
So where does that leave us who fall in the middle of the org charts and who aspire to be the open leaders Li talks about? I think it leaves us to take risks and give those who report to us as many opportunities to take risks as we can. We should not discourage risk-taking simply because we are in a culture that rewards caution. Moreover, we should learn to practice the art of forgiveness. To those in our organizations who take risks and fail, we should ask: “What did you (we) learn? How can this help us in the future?”
We should also take a cue from Google, which has a motto — “Fail fast, fail smart” — that would be a nice one to adopt in higher ed.
Li writes about one spectacular failure at Google in which one VP’s error cost the company millions of dollars. When the VP told Google co-founder Larry Page about the costly mistake, Li recounts, Page told her: “I’m so glad you made this mistake. Because I want to run a company where we are moving too quickly and doing too much — not being too cautious and doing too little. If we don’t have any of these mistakes, we’re just not taking enough risk.”
When was the last time you heard an administrator in higher ed say something like that? Perhaps soon, we’ll hear more of that kind of talk amid the halls of the academy.
Let’s make it happen. Let’s follow Google’s motto to “Fail fast, fail smart.” That would be a win.