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Failure to try is to guarantee failure by default.
There exists in the human psyche what some believe is a genetic, almost primordial drive in Americans to “be one’s own boss.” In fact, it can be argued that the desire to “be our own bosses” is what triggered the American Revolution.
This drive, this self-actuating desire, manifests itself in American society as an entrepreneurial spirit best described as the American Dream. In no other culture or country in the world has such a broad base of its population exhibited this longing to achieve individual freedom via the route of entrepreneurism. It was the embodiment of this ambition that served as both foundation and fuel for the American economic miracle.
That was then, this is now
Unfortunately, in the American society of today, dreaming of success inevitably invites a chorus of naysayers. They see the American tradition of “dream chasing” as passé. They believe that everything that should be done has been done. And since this is true, those who chase their dreams are, ispo facto, a threat to those who cherish the status quo.
Perhaps that’s why there seems to be a nascent consensus to suppress, rather than support the individual’s dream of success. Just look at the demoralizing gauntlet the dreamer must run to realize success. Negative pressures, disheartening influences, outright skepticism and threats of recrimination for failure. They’re all designed to discourage one from even trying. Dreamers who face these seemingly irreconcilable influences often wilt amid the resulting conflict, confusion and insecurity. Indeed, the impediments can become so overwhelming that the very idea of making the effort to achieve success is blunted. William Shakespeare noted that self-defeatism when he wrote (in Measure for Measure) “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”
The most significant impediment to following one’s dream of success is, without question, the specter of failure, and especially, how the naysayers might view one’s failure. Failure is positioned as the penalty lurking at the end, to be assessed when success is not achieved. Failure is depicted as the equivalent of a celestial black hole that sucks in failed dreams and destroys any hope for the future. The dreamer not only says “I have failed,” but far worse, he or she may be convinced by others to believe, “I am a failure.” Threatened by this bleak scenario, most fail to try to achieve their dreams, because they have more fear of failure than a passion for success.
Taking Responsibility for the Dream
But failure is a phony issue. Failure is like the schoolyard bully: it has the power to define how we act—only if we allow it to. Sure, failure exists and it can be painful, but what many do not realize is that the benefits of success far outweigh the penalties of failure. There is another way to look at the concept of failure: Who do you think feels worst about themselves? Those who failed trying or those who failed to try?
Some use the fear of failure as a motivator for success, but the best way to defuse the impact of failure is to view it as something that can happen at the start of the path to success, not the end. Failure can actually be turned into a positive when it is viewed as a tool to signal that you are not on the right path to success, not as a signal that success cannot be achieved. When failure is viewed from this perspective, it becomes a motivator to keep trying, not to quit. The truth is that if you are not risking failure, you are not trying hard enough.
We all know the names Henry Ford, R. H. Macy, H.R. “Colonel” Sanders, Orville and Wilbur Wright, Walt Disney, Oprah Winfrey, Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, Emily Dickinson and Bill Gates. These diverse individuals – and thousands like them – toiled in different fields of creative activity and each had their own definition of success. But they all shared one thing in common: They were all abysmal serial failures before they became successful dream catchers that we know and revere. The irony is that their initial failures not only failed to dissuade them from their dreams, but clarified the goal and added fuel to the fire to achieve it. It is a great lesson to learn.
Another reason why failure has such a foreboding feeling for many is because they fail to understand the difference between a dream and a fantasy. A dream is something that can be made to happen, while a fantasy is something that can only be wished for. Chasing a dream is a risk; trying to achieve a fantasy is a gamble. The difference between those who fail and later succeed and those who fail and flounder is an understanding of the difference between a dream and a fantasy. A risk can be managed, but not so a gamble. If it is success you seek, the most important step is the first step and that is to make an honest determination as to whether your definition of success is a dream or a fantasy.
There are a number of ways to do this, but they all come in the form of questions:
- Does what you seek to offer differentiate you from the competition?
- Are you seeking to create something new or copy the old?
- Do you understand the risks inherent in the effort or are you oblivious to them? (Only risks that are recognized can by mitigated and overcome.)
- Is there a need that is not being met or maybe not even recognized?
- Are you willing to share success, but accept responsibility for failure?
- Do you have a specific, clear vision of what you seek to achieve, that can be communicated and understood by others?
- Are you more passionate about what you will achieve than what you will receive?
Recognizing the intent of these questions and answering them honestly will either confirm the potential of your dream or force you to recognize a fantasy for what it is. Recognizing the difference between a dream and a fantasy will not guarantee success – success can never be guaranteed – but it will help you formulate a plan that will increase your opportunity for success. No one can dream for more than that.
And the Moral of the Story …
So you have a dream for success. Make sure it’s your mind and not your heart that is dreaming and when you do, chase that dream with all your heart. Failure to do so is the ultimate failure.
No matter what happens, you will always be happier having tried and failed, than you will ever be having failed to try.
Truth May Set you Free, but at Many Corporations Where Ethical Leadership is wanting, it may Set You Free to Find Another Job
It is tough enough for a leader to make the right decisions, but virtually impossible to do so when information regarding the options available are withheld or whitewashed with a veneer of half-truths. It’s logical to assume that because of this, leaders would not only encourage, but demand that truth be told; but you would be wrong.
The truth is that many business and government environments create an atmosphere that discourages subordinates from “telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth” to their bosses. This type of environment not only can stifle the telling of truth, but also punish those who come forward to offer it. As a result, many bad decisions are made, not because of the information provided to the leader, but because of information withheld, for fear of retribution.
Fear of the truth usually emerges when the leader has an “arrogance of knowledge” or conversely, when an incompetent leader dreads exposure of this deficiency. Another fertile ground for suppression of truth is in the catacombs of any business or government bureaucracy. The natural strata of a bureaucracy often appear designed to entomb truth from percolating to the top or for a leader to be able to drill down to it. Those below with knowledge of, or seeking to expose the truth, are faced with layer upon layer of resistance with no assurance the truth will go beyond even the lowliest of levels. For the leader at the top there is often no way to verify that what they are hearing is the truth or simply what others want to be heard.
The reality is that both business and government are less efficient and prone to poor decisions when truth is systematically kept from power. But, there is another side to the story, and that is when the truth is known by leaders who then seek to have it suppressed. In such cases, the avoidance of truth becomes a matter of ethics. Not surprisingly, the type of environment designed to hide the truth causes more damage than the failure to learn the truth.
Telling truth to power has two sides: the truth as to how the organization is functioning and exposing illegal or inappropriate activities of the organization; often referred to as “whistle blowing.” There is fertile ground for discussion of both sides of the issue of “telling truth to power,” but for here the subject is limited to the responsibility to find or tell the truth as to how the organization is functioning.
Organizational Transparency is the Key
To be an effective and ethical leader, one must seek to create a totally transparent environment that allows the truth – no matter how helpful or painful it may be – to flow easily up and down and organization. That is easier said than done.
To start, leaders must have enough confidence in their own abilities and judgment to accept information from below – even if it may differ from their own conclusions – and not be intimidated or threatened by it. This requires a confidence of leadership that allows one to admit that despite their experience and position, they do not have all the answers. There are far too many leaders who see and act as though this attitude is a sign of weakness. As a result, others learn that the way to be in the good graces of such leaders is to keep the truth from them. This leads to making decisions based on inadequate or colored information that lessens the chance of making the right decision.
Also, the natural command and control structure of organizations – especially larger ones – are designed to systematize activities and the flow of information. This is not necessarily bad, because activities and information that flow on a haphazard basis can be just as damaging as the lack of action and information. The key is to strike a balance between the need to know the truth and the need for structure. The leader must be sensitive not to intrude on the authority and responsibility of those below by circumventing the structure of the organization. Inefficiency and even chaos can emerge if those at lower levels of the organization are allowed to bypass the chain of command.
There is another side to this issue that is not often discussed. For truth to be told to power not only requires an ethical leader who is willing to hear the truth, but equally as important is an employee who is ethical enough to tell the truth to power.
Those in the trenches of an organization are most often the first to know what is working and what is not. After all, they are hired (or should be) because of their ability to implement the plans and actions of the organization. When an employee knows the truth is different from what the leader may perceive it to be, it us just as unethical for that employee to withhold the truth as is the leader who does not want to know the truth.
In organizations that systematically recriminate against those who tell truth to power, it is understandable that employees will be reticent to sacrifice their job or future on the altar of truth, but it does not absolve them of the ethical requirement to do so. Those who withhold a known truth from power not only must accept that they have sold their soul for a paycheck, but that they, in all likelihood, are in an organization that will fail.
Building an Environment where Truth Prevails
The answer to these challenges – for both the leader and the follower – is simple. It is open, consistent and honest communication that will build a bond of trust. it is the core of ethical leadership.
Like life-giving blood that must flow freely in our veins – and not be blocked – so too must truth flow freely in an organization – and not be blocked – for a leader to be able to make sound decisions.
This can be accomplished by the leader – without destroying the command and control structure of the organization – by being constantly visible, leading open meetings, encouraging the formation of work-groups that explore and examine the operations of the organization, consistently meeting with different groups of employees to outline plans and receive input and, most important of all, creating an environment that encourages members of the organization to ask questions and express their viewpoints, without fear of recrimination.
Only then can truth be told to power.
And the Moral of the Story …
Truth will set you free, but only if you know it. The fear of truth does not change it, but ignorance of truth does condemn a leader to making bad decisions. Telling truth to power requires the cooperation of two parties: The true ethical leader who will seek truth at all costs and the true ethical employee will offer truth at all costs.
Only in such an environment can truth be told to power and in doing so it offers the organization – including the leader and the members – the best chance for success. And, that’s the truth!