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Mining Failures For Fodder

Want to inspire and uplift? Talk about when you fell down—and got up again.

When asked to share personal career success recipes at public events, time-pressed CEOs are often tempted to lean on PR advisors, recycled proverbs or even AI chatbots. But leaders need to do better, drawing inspirational insights from their life trajectories, including the inevitable bumps experienced along the way.

This was underscored recently when CNN’s Michael Smerconish played a montage of clichéd commencement addresses on a recent show, including Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey opining on doing what you enjoy. The tactic provoked his guest, NYU professor and podcast titan Scott Galloway, to weigh in: “The key to… success is getting beamed in the face, professionally and personally, and getting back up. Success is a squiggly line.” Smerconish then recounted his own experience of being turned down for five high-profile television jobs, despite having been groomed for them by prominent anchors for years prior.

Patterns of Success

In my study of CEO careers entitled The Hero’s Farewell (Oxford University Press), I showed that all great leaders follow the pattern mapped by anthropologist Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell outlined a universal cultural quality—the monomyth of the hero. The heroic life stages include a depiction of common origins of the hero, a separation from the hero’s village and anchors, the noble adventures of the heroic quest, a crushing setback—perhaps even near-death—followed by resilience from adversity that fortifies the hero’s character. It is the resilience demonstrated after adversity that punctuates and defines a heroic career.

Accordingly, great CEOs help and inspire when they tell the unvarnished truth of their trials, failures and triumphs in full context, unafraid of surfacing setbacks and in no hurry to trumpet their successes.

In meeting with store managers around the nation, Home Depot co-founders Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank would explain how they were fired from an earlier home improvement retail chain by an activist investor. Their lessons on moving from Los Angeles to Atlanta to start from scratch again is an inspiring saga of rejuvenation.

Lessons from Missteps

Anne Mulcahy took over Xerox when it faced collapse and assiduously worked to build the company up, demonstrating impressive turnaround skills. However, early on, she inadvertently crushed the stock price by talking to analysts about the need to preempt product obsolescence that had not yet happened. The revealed risk set off a panic among investors. She turned that talking-point error into a lesson for others to be able to discuss and correct their own mistakes.

Mulcahy also recounted her practice of going to factories and sharing with employees how bad things really were and Xerox’s plans for improvement, rather than push sugarcoated messages. Such candor gives great credibility. Ford’s Mark Fields did the same in his Way Forward campaign in which management took ownership of prior failures and lessons learned from them.

Jimmy Dunne, the CEO who rebuilt investment bank Sandler O’Neill after losing one-third of his workers in the 9/11 attack, showed a similar blend of toughness and sensitivity to build confidence in a traumatized enterprise. Rather than just pursuing returns, he gave financiers the loftier mission of providing for the families of colleagues lost in the attack, as well as assisting the families of the firefighters who perished rushing into those buildings. Adversity was channeled into a sense of purpose that enabled Sandler O’Neill, which recently merged with Piper Jaffray, to thrive.

Facing up to setback is the true recipe to success—and far more interesting to audiences than platitudes about passion. As Nietzsche advised, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.”


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