7. Failure is only a Comma, Not a Full Stop – 21 Success Sutras for Leaders

Chapter Seven

Failure is Only a Comma, Not a Full Stop

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.


Thomas A. Edison

Most people love success and hate failure. It is rightly said that success has many fathers, while failure has none. However, very few realize that success comes only after successive setbacks and failures. Success comes only when people realize their mistakes and learn their lessons. Success comes when people fail differently instead of failing in a similar way. This entire chapter is dedicated to the leaders who hit rock bottom and bounced back from their failures like the mythical Phoenix.

Is Success Without Failures Impossible?

Henry Ford said, ‘Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.’ Success without failures is a mere impossibility. That means that true success comes out of several successive setbacks and shortcomings. Success comes from sacrifices and struggles. It comes out of hard lessons learnt from failures. When we look at the top global companies like Microsoft and Apple Computers, we see that they had intermittent failures on their entrepreneurial journey. However, they learnt what did not work for them and moved forward successfully. Hence, success without failures is impossible.

Success is not counted by the size of one’s initial splash. When you look at start-up companies, you see that most of them have initial failures. The failure rate among first-generation entrepreneurs is high. Brian Tracy, in The Psychology of Achievement (2002), talks about four millionaires who made their fortunes by the age of 35. They were involved in an average of 17 businesses before finding the one that took them to the top. They kept trying and changing until they found something that worked for them. Hence, you must try and learn from failures so that you can succeed at the end.

Do You Act or React to Failures?

Life is full of highs and lows. When faced with lows, people often react to external distractions rather than act. If you react to distractions, it becomes a negative approach, and if you act, it is a positive approach. When faced with frequent failures, it is essential to lie low for a while, take feedback and then move on. An inability to do so results in further, frequent failures. Hence, be cool for some time and think things through, and then move on to avoid further disasters. Above all, never react to failures.

Is Failure a Friend or a Foe?

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.

Winston Churchill

Like a good friend who corrects you and ensures your progress and prosperity, failure, if handled well, will serve you as a good friend in distress. Failures make you tougher, stronger and wiser. When you face frequent failures, you will be able to handle them well, as you will develop an inbuilt mechanism to bounce back. Besides, failures prevent you from further falls as you tend to be more careful in your approaches and endeavours. Let me share my experience with a good friend of mine, Marcus, who has sailed smoothly throughout his life. Marcus would often say that people who fail are fools as they don’t know how to attempt things. I would often say philosophically that everyone faces failure, and if a person has not faced failure, it means he has not attempted anything in his life. I would also add that people who are ambitious will face more failures as they want to achieve higher goals in their lives. However, Marcus never accepted my viewpoint and insisted that it was only fools who fail and fall a maximum number of times in their lives.

Marcus bought some land to construct a house. When he began construction, he found that his property documents were forged. He was in a deep mess. Having never experienced any setback or failure, he could not digest such an unforeseen incident, and rushed to me for help. He started blaming the real estate broker who had handled the property purchase deal, claiming that the latter had cheated him. I smiled and said, ‘My friend, such mistakes happen in life’. I advised him to look at a solution rather than indulging in a blame game. Marcus and I went to the broker and discussed the issue, and the broker expressed his innocence. We probed the matter further with the support of the broker, and came to know that the party who had sold the land to my friend had also been cheated. We pursued the matter and ultimately resolved it by finding out who the culprit was, thus ensuring proper documentation through both the legal and the broker network.

When Marcus was in a jovial mood, I explained that it was not fools who face failures and setbacks; anyone could face them. My friend realized his mistake in making hasty statements in the past. I told him to treat failures as friends as they teach bitter and better lessons in life, helping us to become stronger and wiser.

Do Leaders Often Fail?

According to Warren Bennis, humanity is currently facing three extraordinary threats: (i) the threat of annihilation as a result of nuclear accident or war; (it) the threat of a worldwide plague or ecological catastrophe; and (iii) a deepening leadership crisis in most institutions. In addition, it is rightly said that leaders fail due to four reasons: lack of vision, poor communication, tolerance for organizational fragmentation and character flaws. In fact, leaders often face more failures than followers, as they take more risks in their lives. They are more involved in decision-making and are meant to take decisions. As all decisions don’t result in fruitful outcomes, there is a greater scope for failure. However, they know that failure is part of their business, and they take it in their stride and move on. The followers, on the other hand, are more concerned about failures as they are not habituated to regular decision-making, as most of their time is spent in execution than in decision-making.

Reagan’s Resilience

Ronald Reagan rose from humble origins. He was a symbol of hard work, whose success was the result of having overcome hardships and challenges. In 1948 he was divorced from his first wife, Jane Wyman. He was not depressed. He failed in his film career. He did not lose heart. His contract with General Electric was terminated. He was unperturbed. He lost to President Gerald Ford in the 1976 primary campaign. It did not break his spirit. But Reagan learnt several lessons out of these failures and setbacks. Each failure made him tougher, stronger and wiser, and enhanced his determination to fight the odds that were stacked against him.

Reagan bounced back from each failure with tenacity and resilience. He was firm and determined to one day be the President of the United States. Most people know only about the cosy life that Reagan led, but they should learn that Reagan faced several hardships, challenges and failures too. But he learnt from each failure and bounced back like the Phoenix.

Hence, to be successful in your life, never say ‘No’ to opportunities. Always be prepared as opportunity may often come in disguise. Find out your core strengths and talents and develop skills and abilities around them. Set strong goals and face challenges head-on. Develop your own network and grow within the available opportunities, rather than blaming destiny or circumstance.

Lincoln’s Lessons

Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.

John Dewey

Here is a man who had seen only lows, not highs throughout his life. Here is a man who failed in all his endeavours. Here is a man who received formal education for only one year. He failed in his personal, professional and social life initially. He was none other than Abraham Lincoln, who is a symbol of hope for people from humble origins.

Abraham Lincoln failed a number of times. He had failed as a storekeeper, postmaster and lawyer, and ultimately succeeded as a politician. Of course, he faced innumerable initial failures in politics too. However, he learnt his lessons from time to time, reinvented himself, and grew.

At last the lessons he had learnt through his life helped him become the President of America and evolve as a great leader who went on to win the Civil War, abolish slavery and restore America’s morale. Lincoln is certainly one of the best American Presidents, who was emulated by successive American Presidents. Whenever the Presidents of America faced challenges, they would look towards Abraham Lincoln’s life for inspiration and leadership nuggets. If Lincoln had taken failures personally, he would not have grown as a great leader.

Failure is a Feedback

Napoleon Hill once said, ‘When defeat comes, accept it as a signal that your plans are not sound, rebuild those plans, and set sail once more toward your coveted goal.’ Failure gives you feedback. It helps you to take stock of the situation and realize where and why you failed. What were the reasons behind failure? Was it due to external or internal reasons? It makes you more humble as you learn to empathize from others’ perspectives. That is why God places challenges before people. Nobody can have consistent growth in life. There will be peaks and valleys in one’s life. This is what enables people to have excitement in their lives. Otherwise, life will remain boring forever.

God and Challenges

Challenges do not weaken us, but they do strengthen our will power. Challenges do not keep us down forever, but bring out the best in us, as it is rightly said that adversity brings the best out of individuals. God helps us to grow through failures. God provides obstacles in our way so that we can overcome them. God tests our true characters by throwing several challenges along the way, as the true character of people is revealed only when they fail and fall. When things go well, any Tom, Dick and Harry can blow his trumpet. However, real inner strength is revealed only when a man fails and falls.

Albert Einstein said, ‘I think and think for months and years, ninety-nine times, the conclusion is false. The hundredth time I am right. It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.’ It is true that failure delays progress, but it teaches several hard lessons that people fail to learn from others. Failures are opportunities in disguise. It is unfortunate that modern society is intolerant of failure and does not provide another opportunity to prove oneself and succeed. Therefore, people must be careful to avoid failure and if it is thrust upon them, they must face it head-on and bounce back with tenacity and resilience by learning valuable lessons. To sum up in the words of Denis Waitley, ‘Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat.’ And, as he goes on to say, failure is something we can avoid ‘only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.’