Dear Leader,

This KEY opens the door to greatness by helping you discover missed opportunities. You will find out what the “failure” blind spot is, and how you can use it to help your team members realize their fullest potential.

We’ll be glad to hear from you with your comments, as well as your strategic and leadership development needs. Please forward this Key to friends, family and associates.


Aviv Shahar

Being Attractive To New Insight – A Consultant Journal
Prague Visit
Coaching Dialogue: Red Lights On Your Dashboard

Wasting Failure, What’s The Use of A Broken Tree?

What have you done with your recent successes and triumphs? How have you used and celebrated them?

What have you done with your failures and setbacks? Have you used them to learn and build toward success?

The blind spot

Many managers waste failures. Pain, pride, and not being able to tolerate the anguish or embarrassment blinds them from seeing the opportunities of blunders.

What is the “Failure” blind spot?

1. Letting personal feelings blind you from discovering what in the process could have happened differently, and how you will do it differently next time.
2. Personalizing and identifying with a blunder, losing confidence and thinking “I am a failure.”
3. Viewing failure the way people viewed leprosy: don’t touch it, don’t see it, and it will go away.
4. Missing the learning and innovation opportunities that can arise from now knowing what not to do.
5. Refusing to “do the grief work” – not internalizing and assimilating the development experience.

Comeback heroes

More than anything, we admire comeback stories: people and organizations that were able to turn the disorienting uncertainty of a blunder into a learning and growth opportunity. Apple’s “Macintosh” was born out of the wreckage of the “Lisa”, an earlier product that flopped and was reengineered to become a great success and one of the most important steps of the personal computing revolution. Steve Jobs returned to Apple to deliver the greatest second act in business. He is now making a run for a third act. Bernie Marcus got fired from Handy Dan, a do-it-yourself hardware retailer, in 1978. It was possibly the best thing that ever happened to him; he went on to start Home Depot. Michael Bloomberg became a partner at Salomon Brothers, but in 1981 after a merger, he was fired. Using his severance, he started a financial data and communications company. Bloomberg L.P. grew rapidly into a huge enterprise. Bloomberg himself became a multibillionaire, and a successful Mayor of New York.

Before he became the US President in 1860, Lincoln had lost a job, been defeated for state legislature in 1832, failed in business, had a nervous breakdown in 1836, lost his re-nomination to the Congress after only one term in 1848, been defeated for US Senate in 1854, been defeated for nomination for Vice President in 1856 and defeated again for US Senate in 1858.

What can we learn from these stories? The most devastating blow can turn out to be the greatest kiss of life. It depends on what you choose to do with the blow.

Wisdom in the forest

Years ago my wife Sara and I hiked Cape Lookout in Oregon. It’s a piece of land sticking out into the Pacific Ocean. About two thirds of the way, we came upon a very large tree. We sat down next to it to catch our breath and realized this large tree was actually growing out of the remnants of the trunk of a much larger tree. I carefully examined it and concluded the standing tree was possibly 120-140 years old. The broken tree out from which the new tree had grown must have been even older when it was struck down. The remaining old trunk was huge. Perhaps it was 240 or 350 years old when it was damaged some 120 to 140 years ago? This meant the old broken tree was standing and growing some 400 to 500 hundred yearsago.

We asked ourselves: How powerful was the storm that came through this forest 150 years ago? How did it break a 250 year old tree?

This huge tree got our minds focused. Nature was offering us a piece of ancient wisdom. Part of the huge root system of the old tree remained intact. Instead of the entire system atrophying because the tree was broken, a part was able to redirect its flow into resurrecting a new tree. The beautiful tree that grew out of the broken tree utilized part of the old root system. The lesson was clear: nature never wastes a failure. Nature utilizes all the parts, everything.

In our modern world, most broken things have no use. They quickly become trash. We rarely pass things down to others for their use and have largely lost the art of re-utilization. What’s the downside of the “convenience culture?” The easy “get two for five dollars” culture breeds laziness, which is a big part of this blind spot. Breakdowns are treated as leprosy: we don’t want to touch them. Failure is viewed as a dead end: we don’t see the transformation it brings. Blunders are discarded and failures get wasted because it takes work to realize the opportunities they bring, and it is the kind of work that most people are not prepared to do.

Falling isn’t failing

As a toddler, you learned from every setback. How many times did you try to take the first step and fell before you succeeded? It was natural and you kept at it. As adults we learn to shy away from such experiences. Two-year-olds explore everything within reach; their zest isn’t lessened by frustration or falling. Falling isn’t failing; it’s learning. Adults learn to stay in the
walled gardens of their successes. It’s a comfortable place but a sure way to miss out on more adventure and learning. Are you prepared to turn blunders into learning experiences to discover the opportunities they present?

I am not asking you to over-analyze setbacks. I’m inviting you to discover the opportunities they bring. Discover nature’s way – never waste a broken tree. Figure out how to fail fast and fumble your way toward success. That’s what your muscles do. The point where the muscle fails is where the tissue tears, which in turn stimulates the nerve that innervates the muscle to grow.

Never waste a failure

We can all learn from Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. They didn’t identify with their failures. They saw them as signposts along the way. Having tried that door already, they asked: What else is there? As Edison said: “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward….”
He also said: “Many of life’s failures are experienced by people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”

Reflect and Act

Here are a few points for a good family discussion or a meeting with your team:
1. Think about your own journey. Where have you been able to use a broken tree as the foundation for a young new tree?

2. How have you turned a crashing disaster into a growth opportunity? What treasures have you found in the wreckage?
3. What was the learning and how did you apply it?
4. How about showing your people how to learn from setbacks? How about celebrating mistakes and having a blunders party?
5. What setbacks are you dealing with right now? What is the new insight that they bring? How can you turn those into thriving opportunities?
6. What new adventures will you take on to fail fast, learn and move on?

One more thought. Bill Gates likes to hire people who have made mistakes: “It shows that they take risks. The way people deal with things that go wrong is an indicator of how they deal with change,” Gates says.

Now it’s your turn. Turn the Key and use a setback to grow a new tree.
Remember Edison, who said: “If we all did the things we are really capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves….”

© Aviv Shahar

Your Engagement Benchmark

Discover The Engagement Benchmark – 15 points you can use to assess your own engagement and the engagement of your team. Evaluate these 15 points to identify strengths and opportunity gaps in the Anatomy of Engagement as it applies to your team. Click here to discover your Engagement Benchmark.

© Aviv Shahar