I regularly interview executives who effortlessly reel off strings of accomplishments, some seemingly single-handed, that have contributed to the success of their employers. These are impressive ‘A’ players who, to hear them tell it, border on near perfection. When the discussion turns to my clients’ particular needs and the suitability of the candidates to address them, they scoff. Of course they will succeed, they never fail!
While these individuals may dazzle with their sparkling resumes and confidence, in my line of work, ‘perfection’ is asterisked in red, as in red flags. In some instances I am being gamed with an over-the-top narrative the candidates believe I want to hear. In other instances the executives do not know themselves well enough to speak to the full complement of experiences that have formed them. Or maybe, just maybe, the executives have been blessed and skilled to go through life without any major stumbles. If so, I cannot help but wonder about leadership blind spots in the wake of their growing cockiness and hubris? And what will happen when they do trip? How will they deal with it? What if that first time is while working for my client? Wouldn’t it just be safer to let that inevitability occur somewhere else?
Adversity and failure are almost always discussed in tandem with the attributes they test, namely determination, resilience, optimism, courage, loyalty and character. A recent article told of how singer/actress Julie Andrews failed her first screen tests; how JK Rowling was turned down by 12 publishers before someone saw the potential of her Harry Potter; how Decca Records turned down the Beatles; how Walt Disney was fired for lack of imagination and how Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team during his sophomore year.
Failure and adversity are the proverbial pain from which many derive their greatest developmental gain. Profound learning is made possible when outcomes violate our predictions, when we are forced to decide, adapt, step back, get back up, and take stock. Such times are often stressful and coincide with trigger events such as job loss, financial stress, marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, illness and death. These are the moments which corner us into reflecting, into making some sense of what is happening to us, into changing, and invariably into growing. This is, as they say, the good stuff….
But while everyone may agree that failure and adversity build and test character, few voluntarily swim those choppy waters. And there is the rub….for most of us, daily life is too hectic and noisy to find the time for those quiet, honest, difficult, sometimes painful discussions with ourselves. Many do not want to go there irrespective of how busy their lives may or may not be. But a life that goes un-reflected improves haphazardly, if at all. And that is why adversity and the occasional failure are so formative. It is also why the most impressive candidates, young and old, have been tested, weathered and made stronger by adversity and can openly talk about it. And that is why I’ll take failure over perfection, any day.
About the Author
Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.