05/18/2015 12:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Say 'YES' to Failure


Vulnerability and failure. Two words which might as well have an R rating when it comes to the higher echelons of corporate and for high-flying entrepreneurs. Or do they? If you look at some of the most successful leaders in play today, at some stage in their upward momentum they have "failed" and shown strength and resilience in coming back from the edge -- and in this has been the vulnerability to say "I need help, I need to reach out and I need to relaunch my trajectory."

Vulnerability can be a great strength in business, because it teaches us to engage and to listen. It encourages others to admit when they need assistance, it gives us new skills and it also brings great collaboration on a commercial level. Richard Branson has failed and gotten up more times than many other entrepreneurs have made a decision.

So how do we embrace vulnerability in the boardroom and put a fear of failure to use?

Don't ignore the elephant in the room

Let's face it; saying "I am invulnerable" is the equivalent of stating you are Superman -- and Superman turned into Clark Kent as soon as some Kryptonite appeared. Remember? In business terms, not admitting to vulnerability is the equivalent of being inauthentic, and it shows through in constant denial and stress. The way others perceive you is through your authentic self -- and trying to be SuperBoss means an immediate lack of authenticity; and that great big elephant sitting in the corner.

Vulnerability means bravery

Bill Gates said "failure is a great teacher." Part of being vulnerable in business is seeing how a willingness to fail is brave and sees you increase resilience as a leader. Linda Sapadin, the U.S.-based author of Master Your Fears and psychologist, uses the example of The Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz, who takes action despite a lack of courage. "People think having courage means you have no fear", when in fact, "...courage is taking action despite the fear." She adds, "you really need to be able to get beyond the fear to make your business happen." In other words, fear of failure doesn't mean full stop -- it means do it anyway, be brave and go for it.

Encourage decision making

When you as a leader hold back from making decisions out of a fear of failure, it engenders that same fear in your team. This means lacklustre projects, an endemic inability to change the business status quo, and a potential lack of future management candidates. A large part of embracing vulnerability and being brave enough to risk failing is making the tough calls and showing staff and also colleagues that this is OK.

Failure does not mean failing

Inventor Sir James Dyson, beloved of the designer vacuum cleaner brigade, went through 5,127 prototypes and 5,126 "failures" to get his phenomenally successful first model right. That's a lot of vulnerability on show. And a lot of what could be termed complete and utter failure. It's also the difference between passive and active vulnerability. This is key to what it means to allowing yourself to "fail" without "failing". If you are passive in your vulnerability, it means you are not choosing to make yourself open to it. If you are active, you are in essence taking the opportunity for informed and pro-active risk-taking. You know there's a pretty big risk of a fail, but there's an equally big chance of payoff.

As General Colin Powell said, "There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure." I would also add that it is opening yourself up to your team, to those who are willing to share ideas with you, to embrace change, and to show that you are willing to learn from others and admit that you don't know everything.

That is true vulnerability and it comes from a position of strength as a person and as a business leader.