Daniel Goleman: The First Step to Success? Admit Failure

When former Medtronic CEO, Bill George, interviewed leadership candidates, he was interested in learning about both their failures and successes. After all, everyone has made mistakes on the job. But in George’s mind, the best leaders are humble enough to recognize that they messed up, learn what not to do in the future, and develop resilience.

I spoke with Bill in my Leadership: A Master Class series about authentic leadership. Below is a portion of our conversation about the benefits of getting leaders to discuss and grow from their failures.

Daniel Goleman: There’s a kind of norm that you’re valued for telling a story of success about yourself, and yet you value someone who was candid about their failures.

Bill George: Right. In fact, I say, don’t promote someone to a high-level position until they’ve actually confronted themselves and said, “I failed.”

DG: What’s the lesson there?

BG: Because I now know, that when tested by limits, I know that failing is not the end of the world. I can come back. I started a company that failed. I took the lessons from that and started another company. I became successful only because I knew what caused me to fail before.

DG: Failure is an ideal opportunity to learn resilience.

BG: Absolutely. What if you don’t have resilience? What if you’re not adaptable? What if you’re just going to stay the course, and you hit a detour? You hit a block in the road? You have to adapt, but you have to have the resilience to come back and fight another day.

DG: How do you train and encourage resilience?

BG: By getting people to talk honestly and openly about the challenges they face and how they’re going to deal with them. People need to know they have the support from their family, friends or colleagues – especially their supervisor. I also encourage investigating introspection tools. When I feel pressure, I go off and meditate. I process. Over time and with practice it’s become a valuable cleansing experience. After quiet contemplation, I notice that I start to say things such as, “Well, it’s not that big a deal. We’ll just go figure out how to deal with it. It’s not the end of the world.”

DG: You get a larger picture of what’s going on, instead of that narrow, hyper focus on what’s wrong, or what you perceive to be wrong.

BG: Yes, you’re not so caught up in the moment. You’re not worried about all those little things. We’ll deal with it. I won’t say it’ll pass, but we’ll deal with it. That mindset then allows you to think more clearly. You’re less reactionary. You make better decisions, such as ask for help. That’s the wave of the future, by the way. Collaboration. Teamwork. It’s not, “I can do it myself. I’ll come back with a solution by tomorrow.” It rarely works. Not in business at least.

Weigh in: How did you handle an interview question about your past job failures? Share your insights in the comments.

Put these ideas into practice with Leadership: A Master Class Training Guide. Each module offers individual and group exercises, self-assessments, discussion guides, review of major points, and key actionable takeaway plans. The materials allow for instructor-led, self-study or online learning opportunities.

Additional resources:

Self-Improvement Begins with Self-Reflection

The Art of Moving On

How to Hear Your Inner Voice

The Power of Positive Planning

Photo: GK Hart/Vicky Hart / Getty Images