Too often we are seeing the concept of ‘failing fast’ play out and it is having catastrophic social and economic impact. The societal impact of individuals losing jobs is one thing, but when this is done in a manner that shows little consideration for the impact on staff, this has broader implications on mental health. The impact of selling off assets, particularly when those assets house dependent individuals in social service and health organisations, creates significant stress on the dependents. Economically, by encouraging entrepreneurs to ‘fail fast’, are we encouraging them to consider the social and economic impact of their actions or are we encouraging a ‘disposable’ mindset?
Let’s take the disposable mindset of our Australian political system. We have had 5 Prime Ministers over a 5-year period. The incumbents in the role have barely had time to make the mistakes they are accused of being responsible for. Our system is at risk, regardless of the side of politics we sit, of thwarting any chance we have to grow our nation in a manner that puts the interest of our population first. The growing discontent from the voting public is all but ignored and it is because our political system is dominated by self-interest and a perverse inability to learn from mistakes. For example, did the Liberal party learn lessons from the Rudd – Gillard – Rudd experience? The Labor Party lost the election and the message from Australia was clear – ‘we want stable leadership!’. The very fact that the Liberal Party were not able to apply the basic realm of practical wisdom by learning from the experience of Labor throughout this experience, is testament to the fact that leaders are not good at learning from mistakes, but seem instead to learn how to replicate them.
We often talk about the importance of reflection and learning from mistakes but does this really create change in the way we deal with failure? Wise reflection on past mistakes takes more than just changing processes, policy, leaders or even the people we lead. Wise reflection requires us to open ourselves to the vulnerability that is required to do things completely differently. Wise reflection allows us to value the meaning of failure by preparing ourselves to experiment with new ways of doing things, rather than tweaking those that aren’t working anymore.
Looking for Leadership
To enable leaders to create sustainability whether it be in business or politics, starts with their ability to apply the first premise of wisdom, to act in the best interest of the collective. It means leaders need to put their own self-interest, their own ideologies, their own judgments and opinions aside and be asking:
What is in the best interest of the collective?
What do we need to do to work collectively to achieve this?
How can we adapt and what does it mean to take that risk or not take that risk?
How can we work collectively to support leaders who take risk and fail?
When leaders are really learning from their mistakes, they are not leveraging what they can personally gain from failure, they are asking how can we adapt and change to learn from it? When we hear more leaders starting to say, ‘here is an idea, let’s try it’, we know there will be successes and failures. By experimenting with lots of ideas and learning from failures by asking ‘why didn’t it work?’, then trying something else, we evolve and move forward. These applied learnings and real change adapted from failures will reinforce and foster greater successes and much greater levels of innovation and wisdom.
The old model of ‘here's a plan. It's going to work’ and then ‘it has to work’, results in the pursuit of failure if the plan wasn’t right in the first place or increasingly because things change so rapidly in today’s world. We can’t always stick to a plan at all costs and some of these plans can be costly in themselves.
The questions must be asked of our political and business models. If it is so easy to vote out the Prime Minister for ‘perceived’ failure and for people to be unable to accept any form of mistake being made by our political parties, how can we build a long term sustainable future for our nation?
What if we were more accepting as a nation that it’s ok to make mistakes – to experiment? What if we were more accepting that our leaders at work might get some things wrong – to experiment? What if we worked in ways that we were continuously improving and trying new ideas to achieve our collective goals? It would mean more ideas are realised, more success achieved through innovative ideas that materialise because leaders have the courage to experiment in what they consider to be in the best interest of the greater good.
It's time to let go a little of our need to control the uncertainty and try some new ideas if we want a sustainable future of prosperity, hope and optimism. If we are serious about this however, we have to back our leaders through success and failure.