Why Embracing Failure is the Wrong Message

Face it: Failure stinks. No one I know likes it. And even the most successful and creative people I know, don’t celebrate things that turned out poorly.

Yet a mantra that has emerged in the last five years is to “celebrate” failure. Really? Celebrate?

While I get, on some level, the reasoning to encourage people to take a risk and actually “do something” or to even possibly do “something big” – the notion of celebrating failure is not, what I believe, is in anyone’s best interest.

Working in and with organizations, I fully recognize the great extents to which people will take to avoid looking “less than” or “foolish” or “incapable”. I also fully recognize the games that are played (some with intention and some unconsciously) to garner the coveted raise or promotion and at times, survive the latest reorganization.

Anything “less than” often is hidden, buried, ignored or rationalized away. I’ve seen multi-million projects that were abject failures be allowed to linger on, all to avoid embarrassment. I’ve seen amazing amounts of money, time and effort be put into a failing project in an attempt to prop it enough to get it over the finish line, only to declare “done” and then allow it to wither away.

And so celebrating failure can then become one more excuse. One more “I only did what you were encouraging me to do” lament as performance is reviewed.

I totally understand that vibrant organizations need innovation and creativity more than ever, and that innovation and new ideas are inherent with risk. Some will make it. Most will not.

Removing Detrimental Organizational Behaviors

Given that, there are certain behaviors that are detrimental to organizational sustainability today. These include:

  • The inability to see or seek new opportunities
  • Playing it safe individual behaviors that undermine the whole
  • Only taking on small, safe, or incremental projects
  • Failing to learn quickly with feedback from initial attempts
  • Avoiding solid analysis of the results of a “less than” effort due to embarrassment

Adding Healthy Organizational Behaviors

Rather than celebrating failure, I suspect what is truly needed is a host of healthy behaviors that include:

  • Contributing new ideas, which are by design, unpolished, unproven and risky
  • The willingness to step outside comfort zones and try new things
  • The deep understanding that innovation is experimental – and that each small failure brings you closer to a success
  • Persistence in the face of obstacles
  • Transparency about what worked and what didn’t
  • Meaningful and deep learning from current misses that enables faster and better attempts in the future
  • Comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty

And so, let’s celebrate creativity and contributing new ideas. Let’s celebrate experimentation, observation and rapid learning. Let’s celebrate bold steps forward into the ambiguous unknown future. Let’s celebrate persistence and pivots and progress.

And when we fail, we celebrate picking ourselves up, reflecting on what happened, and starting anew – smarter, more resilient and more likely to succeed this time around.

How to Tend Your Team’s Fire and Not Get Burned

I’m part of a leadership body for a volunteer organization which has been in a turmoil over a variety of issues, some big, some small. I’ve witnessed the typical human tendencies when conflict erupts:

  • Some are ready for the good fight, armed with their verbal barbs
  • Others are fleeing, scurrying as quickly as they can to resign, to check out, to lay low
  • And sides are forming everywhere as those that feel strongly about the issues seek out and recruit others who share their views

It’s been a rich learning for me, both in seeing how conflict moves through a body of people who have so much in common and in determining how to best show leadership when a group is fracturing over issues that are complex and divisive.

Leaders as Fire Tenders

The image that has emerged for me is “fire tender”. Leaders are always responsible for generating energy (or heat) as they engage the hearts and efforts of others in moving toward a common, shared and worthwhile goal.

In thinking about that energy and momentum as “heat” generated by a “fire”, I recalled that fire takes three elements: Fuel, Oxygen and a source of Heat.

As a leader, your Fuel includes the resources within your reach. It can be your own energy or the energy of others. Seed money is fuel as is the common vision of the purpose of the group you are leading.

The second element needed is Oxygen. This is the environment you create and your ability to allow others to “air” their thoughts. Some leaders are too stifling and don’t allow enough air into the situation. These restrictive leaders dampen (or totally extinguish) the energy others bring. On the other extreme are the leaders that either fan the fire or allow others to do so without restraint, creating increasingly uncontrollable situation in which the fire burns out of control.

The third element needed is a source of Heat. Your leadership and direction can spark energy and the fire. And in times of conflict, the friction between various points of view creates the heat that starts the fire.

As a leader, you want the energy of the fire, the passion that moves people toward a goal, and the friction between what is and what could be. Yet the energy you are firing up does require tending. For too hot a fire and your people and organization burn out of control. Burn too fast and resources are consumed too quickly. And when the fire is too hot, people either get burned or burn out.

On the other hand, too little fire and teams burn too cool. Leaders that are too cool are overly controlled and fearful to tap into the heat. They smother or drown the fire, apprehensive about unleashing the energy, emotion and fervor it brings. Groups with a too cool leader are lethargic and uninspired. People here don’t burn out, they check out.

Harnessing the Power of Fire

As a leader, the key is to manage the energy so that your organizational fires burns neither too hot nor too cool. The image is a controlled fire. One with light and heat, but with mechanisms in place to control the burn. That requires you to create sparks – to ignite the possibility before you. You need to provide enough fuel to feed the fire, and your fuel can be people or vision or higher purpose or clear direction. As a leader tending a controlled fire, you’ll need to enable air to circulate, to create openness and a free flow of the right amount of air (or input from others) to start the fire and keep it burning. And you also need to create some fire walls, norms that contain the energy so that it is helpful and not hurtful.

Equally as a leader fire tender, you instinctively know when you need to step in to cool things down because the fire is burning too hot. At those times you might need to slow things down a bit, stop adding more fuel, manage the energy of the group to get things to a more manageable level.

The converse is knowing when you need to stoke the fire. When things are running too cool, you might need to create a spark, to add more fuel or to blow gently so as to find those embers that can reignite with just a bit of attention from you.

I’ve seen leaders panic when their team catches fire. They step in and immediately pour cold water on what has emerged, drowning it rather than tending it carefully. At times this is because it was “not their idea”. Other times it is because the light and energy threatens the status quo. And at other times they are afraid of brilliance of the light they might create.

Man’s early discovery of how to control fire was one of the biggest breakthroughs in the advancement of human civilization. As noted in Wikipedia:

The control of fire by early humans was a turning point in the cultural aspect of human evolutionFire provided a source of warmth, protection, improvement on hunting and a method for cooking food. These cultural advancements allowed for human geographic dispersal, cultural innovations, and changes to diet and behavior. Additionally, creating fire allowed the expansion of human activity to proceed into the dark and colder hours of the evening.

So too, can your ability as a leader to tend to and control the fire in your organization can be a turning point. Harnessing the power of that fire, rather than being afraid of it, can provide energy, engagement and innovation. Being willing to stoke the fire and create a spark can enliven and refocus your team. Managing the fire so that its warmth, light and energy are helpful and not raging out of control is important. Perhaps your most important role as a leader!

Ten Gifts Great Leaders Give

I’ve worked with great leaders, mediocre leaders and one or two really poor leaders. In reflecting back, I realized the really great leaders gave me many great gifts.


These are gifts that last over time. They aren’t very tangible but are always present. They are gifts that altered the way I saw myself, or my situation, or the world around me. I am eternally blessed by and grateful for these gifts.

Want to know what these gifts are? Read my latest blog post, and see my challenge for you.

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Need a New Planning System for 2018? Mine Might Inspire You to Create Your Own.

In the past two days, I’ve had two separate requests to share my planning system. So here goes. Warning: This is not for the faint of heart!

I believe many of us are searching for some “magic” – the one system that provides us focus, keeps us organized and helps us achieve all that we set out to do. And there are more than enough people who will claim they have the system for you. Many times they are expensive and complicated.

My system has evolved over time and is a bit non-traditional. Yet, it works for me and it has enabled me to get and stay focused on the most important things, to track progress and to guide my activities over time.

I truly believe that no one size fits all. I’ve seen others do really well with other systems that when I tried them, left me uninspired, overwhelmed and doomed to fail.  I’m not suggesting this will work for everyone. But I do suspect that you might do as I did, experiment with one of two of the elements and see if they work for you. If they do, great. If not, it was only an experiment.

Keep reading to learn more about my planning system for 2018 and how you can adapt and experiment with it to have a focused and fulfilling year!

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A Simple Daily Practice That Can Change Your Life

In this week of Thanksgiving, I want to share a practice that I began long ago. It has dramatically improved my mood, my well-being and my life and takes less than 10 minutes a day and requires less than $10 in materials. The most challenging part of the practice is that it requires practice. You must work at having the discipline to do it day in and day out, regardless of your state of mind, your fatigue, or your busyness.

Keep reading to learn about what this practice is and the scientific benefits that come with cultivating the mindset associated with it.

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Self-Care or Self-Obsession? How to know when you’ve stepped over the line.

It’s taken me an entire lifetime to internalize and act on the notion that taking care of myself was not as selfish at it appeared on the surface. I’ve had to experience, both personally and vicariously, the detrimental effect of self-neglect – when energy was sapped, spirit was wounded, and health was jeopardized.

Keep reading to learn about why self-care is so important and how I differentiate self-care from self-obsession.

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Creative Organizations Do These 3 Things Well

Creativity does not just “happen” in innovative organizations. Creative organizations have a very different culture than their less creative peers. In these organizations, creative teams focus on different things than their non-creative counterparts. And on those teams, creative people cultivate and practice the skill of innovation and creativity.

Creative organizations are a culmination of the right actions at these three levels:

– A creativity nurturing culture
– Leaders who encourage creativity
– Individuals with the skill and the will to create.

In today’s post, I’m going to share some actions you can take at all three levels to encourage, support and reap the rewards of creativity in their organizations.

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The Creative Process in Organizations

The creative process is truly a process. Whether creating a symphony, a piece of art, a new product or service or an organizational initiative; both the artist, the entrepreneur and the corporate leader take the same steps. That path from idea to implementation is a long and arduous one. A journey worth taking, but one that Is not for the faint of heart.

I’ve articulated six steps in the creative process – and this process is the same if you are creating art or creating a new business. In this post, I’ll articulate those steps followed by a simple explanation. A very simple explanation! The goal today is to provide an overview of the process – in later posts we’ll do deeper dives.

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Leaders as Creators

In this series on creativity within organizations, I am reposting this blog post from 2015. In it, I describe the role of leaders as creators.

An artist looks at their work in a totally different frame of mind than a mechanic does. The artist sees infinite possibility. The mechanic sees a problem to be solved.

As a leader, you are often in the “mechanic mode”. People bring to you problems to be solved, work to be done, decisions to be made, dilemmas to be fixed, and that is a valuable and ever-present part of the role you play.

But how often do you play the role of creator? Of someone who can envision a better future and then find a way to make that vision a reality?

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Five Mistaken Assumptions Business People Have about Creativity and Innovation

Continuing on with my exploration of innovation and creativity in the “workplace”, let me share some common myths I encounter as I talk about creativity in the business world and the role of leaders as creators. The notion clearly is dissonant to many who hold the prevailing belief that work is work and creativity is play or at best only for the arts. As I peel back what underlies this notion that creativity and business are integrated rather than disparate.

Here are some of the common beliefs that block creativity from business that are well worth a critical examination.

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