Getting Back On The Horse

This may be a bit of an Americanism — cowboys and the Old West and all that — but the concept is universal: if you fall off the horse, you need to get back on it to keep moving forward. That’s important, because any organization that is going to try new things, to encourage innovation and collaboration, to keep growing in the face of a changing market, is going to fail at something, and everyone needs to get back on the horse when they do.

It may be your fault, or it may be circumstances outside your control, but at some point every organization is going to have failures, some small and some huge. How you deal with those failures, individual ones as well as firm-wide, says a lot about your skills as a leader. It’s relatively easy to take success and build upon it; it is much more challenging to take a failure and build something great from it.

With this in mind, “resilience” becomes one of the most important traits for any organization that dares to try anything new. While failure should ideally challenge us to do better and motivate us to improve, all too often it has the opposite effect: we get scared of a repeat, and so stop trying new things. This is particularly true if we have long been successful and have forgotten what it’s like to have to correct a mistake or turn things around. Sometimes, success can be a much bigger impediment than failure — it creates a sense of complacency, and a fear of failure that is so great that we refuse to take a chance on anything new. With a strong sense of resilience we can make it through a tough time and emerge at the other end with ideas for the future rather than simply recriminations from the past.

Resilience only develops by being tested and experiencing mistakes. There is a lot of talk about how Generation Y’s parents have hovered over them and prevented them from making mistakes (the “strawberry generation” is what they are sometimes called, as if they bruise too easily), and if that’s truly the case then you have got an uphill battle when it comes to developing resilience among the younger members of your workforce. What you need to do is create an environment where it’s ok to make mistakes and fail as long as you learn from it and are willing to acknowledge it and can find a way to move forward. We are not talking about mistakes through negligence or reckless behavior, but instead, failures that result from the process of creativity…failures that are naturally going to occur. We are reminded of a quote by Thomas Jefferson, writing about the University of Virginia:

This institution will be based upon the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.

You may occasionally have to help your folks get back on that horse, but it’s important that you don’t take their place in the saddle. Don’t do the work for them. Let your employees learn to pick themselves up when things don’t go right, dust themselves off, and start moving forward again. Make sure they know that you expect they will fail, but then you expect them to get over it and move on.

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