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Failing—to Win

How leaders turn fumbles into fodder for success.

Make no mistake about it; no one likes to make a mistake. But admitting one’s failure and learning from it often provides for greater success in future. That’s the message from several CEOs who made well-informed decisions backed by solid research and due diligence that nonetheless failed miserably. Sure, their pride took a punch, but they came away from the knockdown tougher and smarter for the next round.

This humble breed of corporate leaders stands in stark contrast to the many CEOs unwilling to concede a wrong turn, shifting the blame to factors beyond their control or people in their employ. This attitude is detrimental and ultimately defeating, as it thwarts a ripe opportunity to learn from one’s errors so as to make more informed decisions in the future. As Dale Carnegie put it, “The successful man will profit from his mistakes and try again in a different way.”

If only every leader, corporate and otherwise, took his or her corporate training homilies to heart. In preparing this article, missives were sent to literally dozens of media relations executives, soliciting the interest of their CEOs in publicly admitting a misstep. Needless to say, there were few takers.

Yet, the blogosphere brims over with advice on how to learn from failure (type those last three words in Google and nearly 100 million results pop up). Are corporate leaders too rigid to acknowledge their blunders, or are they simply tight-lipped on the subject?

Fortunately, A.G. Lafley, president and CEO of Procter & Gamble, is not among them. Considered one of the most successful chief executives in modern times (he’s a former Chief Executive CEO of the Year) and recently returned to lead P&G back to growth mode, Lafley pulls no punches about his own slip-ups. “I’ve come to realize that you learn as much from your failures as you do from your successes,” he says. “The toughest losses are the most instructive, whether it’s a great sports team or a major corporation.

“Really, the only failure to fear,” he adds, with a nod to Winston Churchill, “is the fear of failure.”


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