He was fired two weeks ago. The announcements are carefully worded to soften the implications but the reality is that my boss won’t be working for the organization any longer and that by the end of the month he will be gone. I like him quite a lot yet understand the explanation for why the departure is necessary. For a few days, I am able to make it about him and somehow avoid any contamination or accountability in the events. He is 60, will need to find new work, and will likely have a difficult time doing so. Those are the facts and if there is any ‘failure’ present, it is about him and his relationships with others. I am pristine.
But that isn’t really true. I am part of a leadership team that directs our programming and holds responsibility for our performance. I feel pride in our collective successes so cannot partition myself from the bad things that happen. I can argue that our work has impact, that it is worthy of pride, that we change the lives of artists, Indigenous leaders and so many others. So why is he gone?
I believe that failure has value, particularly in hindsight. We learn from our mistakes and our brains are wonderfully clever at reorganizing narrative to make things that once felt awful feel like positive contributions to our development. I know this to be true and I know that in 6 months or a year I will be able to look back at this and that he will be able to look back at this and see value in the experience. I know this with my head and I teach so many others the same. In my body, though, I feel nauseous.
I believe that leadership can be defined as a collective capacity to deal with reality. Every day I tell myself that I am a good leader and that our team has the capacity to deal with reality. And then the head of our department is fired and reality seems to be questioning some of the assumptions that I have found so reassuring.
Most people writing about failure are doing so from a safe distance; rich people writing about inequality, white males arguing for diversity, millionaires expounding on failure. We go on safaris and pretend we’ve had an experience of danger and wilderness. We watch a sad movie and imagine that we’ve experienced something profound. We watch a TED talk and borrow epiphany.
I must admit that our best work and our best intentions were inadequate and so he was fired. We can rationalize the outcome and move responsibility away from ourselves and onto external forces, but reality is straightforward, and blunt. Despite our chorus of affirmation, he is without a job and the rest of us must make sense of what’s next.
That’s what failure does. It doesn’t offer tidy sound bites at which we can smile and nod. Learning from failure isn’t like learning from a book. It’s more like being hit upside the head with the book and then forcing ourselves to figure out why someone would want to do that to us. Failure calls into question the assumptions that underpin our model of the world.
We become dumb.
We become ashamed at not knowing something that others seem to see so clearly. We are dumb about something we think we understand and take pride in understanding. The temptation to run away is intense. The desire to substitute another word (any word) for ‘failure’ is compelling. I run through the options in my mind – ‘fate’, ‘personality differences’, ‘misunderstanding’. They are helpful, but I circle back eventually and must deal with my dumbness again. My heart must be humbled so that a new narrative can emerge. I will need a new story to explain what has happened, and that new story will cast me in a new role. How can I be the hero of a story that ends so badly?
Failure in experiments shows us paths we need not follow. Failures in life cut deeper. I am being forced to disassemble the narratives I carry about my work and my relationships and reconstruct them based on what reality is offering. I can hide from this responsibility, and many do, but then I lose the opportunity to grow. Mary Parker Follett, a 1920s management theorist and the inspiration for much of my work writes, “Experience may be hard but we claim its gifts because they are real, even though our feet bleed on its stones". I want to claim its gifts but don’t always enjoy the bleeding.