Failing Upward

You’ve likely seen a leader who seems to have failed at every single position they’ve ever had, yet keeps getting promoted. At first glance, one would assume that leader should have been fired and black bagged rather than given newer, higher opportunities.

Indeed, many are treated this way though we don’t notice them as we rarely point out the expected result. Our emotional response uses poor logic, concluding that since so many leaders we see have failed in the past, that all leaders who fail get put into higher positions. That, however, is a logical fallacy and a few minutes thought will make us realize that this is simply the most noticeable minority.

In general, there are less leaders than there are followers, and only a small portion of existing leaders have failed. Even fewer of them have failed and then been promoted but it does seem like the ones who have been promoted have failed. So what gives? Why do some leaders who never fail stay stagnant while other leaders who do fail get promoted? It’s all about how they fail.

Failing With Style

The manner in which you approached the failed task and the manner in which you responded to the failed task determines weather or not you will be viewed as someone to shun or someone to promote. To be clear, this has nothing to do with “keeping calm,” “playing it cool,” or any other charismatic attributes you may or may not have. While plenty of managers will get by for a while on charisma, it has it’s limits.

The approach I’m referring to is a mindset of pushing limits and learning from them. In other articles I’ve expanded on the idea of “if you’re not failing, you’re not trying.” The idea being that if you never failed at anything, that indicates you never tried anything new. The only way to have never failed is to have stayed within the safe zone your entire career.

While at first glance, a resume of non-failure sounds trust worthy, history has shown those leaders to lack innovation. Without innovation, a company cannot capture market share and will eventually lose their market share to other innovative companies. This is where we get the phrase “innovate or die.”

Learn Faster

You may have heard the term “Fail fast but learn faster” or the shorter version “Fail harder.” The idea behind these is that attempting anything meaningful has a risk of failure and therefore you should not be afraid to fail, but you need to ensure that the failures will be early (with minimal investment and therefore minimal loss) and set up in such a way that you can learn from the failure (via various feedback sources) and pivot into a better strategy.

Plenty of leaders fail but only a small portion of them “fail up” and that is because only a small portion fail in the manner listed above. These are not outright failures but are instead initial attempts at innovation in a manner which facilitates adaptation. A leader who can do that has become more valuable due to the failure.

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A business professional with an insatiable desire to learn and improve. I hope to share what I've learned and identify connections between concepts.

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Focused Efficiency

A business professional with an insatiable desire to learn and improve. I hope to share what I've learned and identify connections between concepts.