Recently a friend called asking for an urgent coffee date. I met Shakuza that evening and listened to her explain in detail how she was going to be sacked because of a major deal she had failed to close. Shakuza works for one of the big four audit and accounting firms. She was in line for partnership and the Senior Partner had already made an initial offer of which she was agreeable to in principle. Shakuza has a brilliant mind and no wonder within 8 years of joining the firm she was ready to make it to a partnership. She was leading the team that made a bid for a lucrative government tender. That bid alone would have guaranteed her some pretty bonus and earnings and would confirm her readiness for partnership. She worked on the tender documents to ensure they were submitted on time. To her dismay, she came to learn that the delivery arrived 10 minutes after closing time, and so technically was time barred. Later though, through negotiations, the bid was accepted with a lateness note. Worse still on opening the bid document, the proposal had a typo error – an extra zero was added to the proposed price, making it ten times what they intended to propose! On costs alone, the bid was more expensive than all others and hence was thrown out. The whole firm was disappointed when they received the results and all eyes turned to Shakuza!

No one likes to fail. We all would love the ‘utopian’ feel that whatever we do succeeds. No school ever prepares us for failure, other than the on-the-job training of failure. Rarely, are leadership classes held on how to handle failure. Yet, failure is a powerful tool for leaders, because everyone fails. I have failed so many times, one of my first vivid memories is when I failed to score appropriate high school grades for public university admission. The feeling I had for months was a deep-seated anguish of failure and worthlessness. I recall them all too well. Just recently, we had a work inspection event of the branch I am in charge of. The inspectors arrived on time, but we started 45 minutes late because we could not access an LCD projector screen on time. Due to the late start, confusion set in place a domino effect of failure on other programmed events. I was dumbstruck, embarrassed and downright mad. This was despite my good foresight, planning skills and checklists that my team and I kept ticking. However, I appreciate the times of failure for this is what I have learned:

  • Failure helps us distinguish between perfectionism and excellence. Perfect is a state without flaw, blemish or fault while excellence is a process that seeks to pursue higher standards and goals while always surpassing average or common standards. I tend to be a perfectionist and therefore many times I look out for what is not right and seek for a flawless state. However, this realization that I need to strive for excellence and not perfectionism has been liberating. Perfect state is impossible to attain, instead, we should always aim to better ourselves and set a new higher standard. It also frees us from negative comparisons with others and instead asks how we can improve what is already there. That is the essence of Kaizen – continuous improvement.
  • Failure helps us accept others more. I have always thought that my way is the best and that others should really try better like I do. (What an egoistic thought!) In the projector incidence described above, I really thought I had everything in place and control until I was told that the key to the projector storage room could not be found. It was awfully difficult to tell my boss that we are delayed because we cannot find the key! As a leader, I wanted to shout at both my team and myself, but I realized that everyone fails at one time or another. Instead of putting my team down or shaming my logistics assistant, I opted to take responsibility for the failure, resolve the situation and keep calm. After the event, I sat down with my team to review the preparation and events of the day. We evaluated it objectively and everyone took responsibility for their shortcomings. We had time to laugh and appreciate what went well as well as agree on how to take care of things in future. One of my reports asked me “why were you so calm and even now you are so calm, are you sure none of us is getting a warning letter?”
  • Failure helps with creativity and innovation: Thomas Edison was an American businessman and inventor. He is hailed as one of the greatest inventors, with inventions such as the light bulb, fluoroscope, rubber, and battery. Before any of his inventions could work he would try thousands of times. It is said he once was asked if he ever gets discouraged at all the failed experiments and he replied “I have not failed. I have discovered 10,000 ways that cannot work and hence am 10,000 ways closer to what works!” Failure helps you know what does not work and at the same time sets you on a path of discovery.

Next time you fail engage failure as your ally and use it to better your leadership. “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure” – Collin Powell.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mrs. Truphie Kwaka-Sumba is a passionate leader and believes that Africa has what it takes to grow to greater heights. This is possible with sustainable leadership. Where leaders do all it takes to transform their societies today without compromising tomorrow’s chances, plus they include the other half – women! Truphie is committed to building great people, creating great organizations and societies where both men and women are at the core. She lives in Nairobi and is married to Daudi and they have 3 children.

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