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Owning Failure Is the Greatest Key to Success

May 24, 2010
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Barb Checket-Hanks

Lately I have wondered if something is missing in the education some business owners receive. Let’s call it Accountability 101. The training should have started in childhood, the first time you made a mistake and Mom, Dad, or another authority figure asked if you did it; there should have been a heavy feeling of guilt that wouldn’t go away until you owned up to the wrong doing.

When confronted with their own errors, children may try to say, “It’s not my fault.” Or, “They made me do it.” Or, “I forgot.”

Adults don’t stray far from those kinds of remarks, saying things like “It’s not my job,” “No one told me,” and “It couldn’t be helped.”

We have been hearing too many of these excuses from companies involved in the Gulf oil spill. “I’m not familiar with the individual procedure on that well,” is one of the latest.

We are reasonably certain that the denials and prevarications have come at the prompting of legal counsel. If children had lawyers, they would never learn the importance of owning up to a mistake - and then they wouldn’t be able to learn from it.

The most valuable part of any error is the ability to learn from it. Without that saving grace, we are left with nothing but the consequences of fixing what went wrong while the likelihood of repeating it is increased.

What if no one comes forward with information that could help shed light on what happened in the Gulf? Nothing will be learned on how to prevent it from happening again. Perhaps a few individuals might be protected for a while, or a few companies - but if such things are able to happen again, whole industries and many livelihoods could be lost, not to mention the ecologic losses.

The litigious nature of society is like an oil spill; it spreads uncontrolled while people who need to address it look for an easy way out. Children do not learn without facing consequences - neither do adults. We have some advantage in being able to remember, or at least imagine, what the consequences could be, and alter our courses accordingly. But at some level you need to admit responsibility.

Stonewalling is not the answer when people ask you hard questions. “We’ve never seen this problem before” is not a valid answer to customers facing a system problem that doesn’t seem to go away. It will not gain customer loyalty; in fact, it will drive people away, and the bad word of mouth will spread like oil on the water.

Sometimes even an unpleasant truth is better to receive than non-answers. Think of the person who has been going to a doctor’s office for months, looking for answers to mysterious symptoms that come and go. If an unpleasant diagnosis finally occurs, most often they are relieved: at least there is an answer, an explanation, even though it’s not an answer with a lot of options.

If you find yourself in a situation that seems to defy easy answers, don’t keep looking for them. If a customer - or customers - have recurring problems, help them find the answers.

“I am not bound to win,” wrote Lincoln, “but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but am bound to live up to what light I have.”

Constantly trying to avoid responsibility is an empty, hollow way to live. To quote Colin Powell, “There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.”

Solving the hard problems is what makes superheroes out of common folks. The only way to solve problems of your own making is first to own them. Don’t wait for the prosecutor to ask, “You do this business, do you not?”

Publication date: 05/24/2010
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