Overcoming Failure – Making it Personal – Part 2

Posted by on September 10, 2012

By Craig Wilson

This post will examine overcoming the second type of failure – when decisions we make lead to our inability to achieve our goal. This is the most difficult to deal with and overcome for us because it was an avoidable situation and it’s our fault for failing. Let me give a personal example of this type of failure.

Twelve years ago I was in the middle of a consulting project when it became clear to me that I needed to get more developed skills in the area of leadership and prescribing ways to implement changes that would lead organizations to improved performance. I was often called into situations to analyze the “numbers” and to suggest changes to lead to greater profitability. The companies that engaged me wanted me to present to them solutions such as, sell more purple widgets and cut the green widget line and you’ll be in clover, or, more painfully, cut these five positions and you’ll get back to profitability.

When I would be onsite doing my legwork often a completely different picture would emerge. I would see a situation where, for example, poor performance was tolerated and great performance was not recognized. Over and over I would find that poorly executed soft skills of leadership were really at the root of the problem, not the hard numbers. With limited knowledge in the field of leadership skills I was like a doctor who could diagnose the disease, but not prescribe the cure. This led me to begin studying leadership.

I began doing self-study and seminars by Stephen Covey, John Maxwell, Warren Bennis, and others, but I needed greater depth and study. I began searching for formal programs in leadership studies and in 2002 began a doctoral program in strategic leadership. The program consisted of three years of coursework followed by a final project. In the final semester there was a capstone paper required that needed to be accepted before moving on to the final project. That was where I got stuck.

I first had to submit a proposal for my paper – it was rejected. The professor sent his comments with the rejection. I asked for clarification. He sent additional suggestions. I still didn’t understand what he was asking for in the paper. My frustration grew and the clock was ticking. 

I had this professor for a few other classes and had mixed results. He either loved my work or really didn’t care for it. This seemed to going in the really didn’t care for it direction. I decided to step back, take a break and come back with a fresh perspective.

Holly and I were the primary care givers our mothers, both suffering from dementia, and at that time both were having issues that needed our attention. In addition, Holly’s brother was going through issues that required our attention. I decided to take my C for the class and to do the paper in the fall when things would be more settled. You know what’s coming.

Our daughter got engaged on that Labor Day and planned to get married on December 3rd that year – in Australia! I just couldn’t find a block of time to concentrate paper and as more time went on, the paper grew more distant. I gave some efforts now and then to try to rekindle the process, but nothing of the commitment needed to really see it through. In the fall of 2009 it became official when seven year deadline to complete the program came and went. I failed. You might be thinking, “It wasn’t your fault Craig, you had so much going on.” I hope you’re thinking such compassionate thoughts. The reality is we will always encounter obstacles to overcome in achieving our goals. Let me repeat that – WE WILL ALWAYS ENCOUNTER OBSTACLES TO OVERCOME IN ACHIEVING OUR GOALS. In this instance I did not have what Kouzes and Posner would define as the “psychological hardiness” needed to overcome these obstacles and press on to the goal. These obstacles were not some catastrophic event like our house getting destroyed or a death. It was difficult communication with a professor, it was our mothers’ illness, it was a wedding, all surmountable with the right perspective. I failed.

This is the hardest type of failure for most of us to get over because we know inside that we could have succeeded but by our decisions we did not. It’s important to know that everyone has failed in this way – we are not perfect. Kouzes and Posner state “It is…absolutely essential to take risks. Over and over again, people in our study tell us how important mistakes and failure have been to their success.”

I look back on my experience in the strategic leadership program and realize that it changed me. I achieved my goal to be able to confidently prescribe solutions to those leadership issues I observe in organizations. It’s led me to teach again, for which I am truly grateful. I’m writing these essays because of what I gained from the program. I’ve also learned that such failure is not the end, but a new path to explore.

Let me close this post with the following list of “failures” that Kouzes and Posner compiled:

  • Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times. In between his strikeouts he hit 714 home runs [not steroid enhanced].
  • Martina Navratilova lost twenty-one of her first twenty-four matches against arch-rival Chris Evert. She resolved to hit more freely on the big points and beat Evert thirty-nine out of their next fifty-seven matches. No woman tennis pro has won as many matches, including a record nine Wimbledon singles titles.
  • R.H. Macy failed in retailing seven times before his store in New York became a success.
  • Abraham Lincoln failed twice in business and was defeated in six state and national elections before being elected president.
  • Theodor S. Geisel wrote a children’s book was rejected by thirty-three publishers. The thirty-fourth sold six million copies of it – the first “Dr. Suess” book.
  • Fred Astaire’s first screen test assessment: “Losing hair. Can’t sing. Can dance a little.”

Bennis and Namus say don’t fear failure, it’s like learning to ski, if you’re not falling down,
you’re not learning.

What’s one thing you can do to reframe a personal failure into a learning
experience that will make you stronger?

Keep Learning and Keep Getting Back Up,


Thank you for your Interest in Minnesota School of Business.