Opening Day

Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison says we have a lot to learn from baseball players: They fail all the time, but they learn from the experience.

Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and the author of Take Control: The Career You Want, Where You Want.

Balls bounced off the pitcher’s mound—others skyrocketed to the outfield. Things were going from bad… to worse.

It happened years ago. The catcher on a baseball team suddenly couldn’t throw the ball back to the pitcher. He had plenty of skill and physical ability—but with a lot of fans in the stands, he couldn’t make even the simplest of throws.

Then one day, while seated behind home plate, I heard someone singing, of all things, a nursery rhyme. “Mary had a little lamb… little lamb, little lamb….”

When I turned my attention to home plate, I realized the singer was actually the catcher. And he was now making every single throw without an error!

As it turned out, this young player had been advised by a former professional catcher to take himself out of the moment. And it clearly worked.

All of us undoubtedly face our share of disappointments. To put them in perspective, we can find inspiration from an unlikely source—Major League Baseball in the US, which starts a new season this week on Opening Day.

Baseball, ultimately, is a game of failure—where a swing and a miss are far more common than hits, let alone those rare home runs. Let’s put it this way: A batter who successfully gets a hit only once out of every three times at bat throughout their career—or, to put it another way, fails 66% of the time—is probably headed to the Hall of Fame.

Or consider the words of basketball’s legendary Michael Jordan who said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted with the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

It’s called having no fear of failure—and it’s one of the most important leadership traits.

On the wall of my home office is a beautiful, framed print—black brushstrokes against an off-white background—a treasured gift given to me a few years ago by colleagues in China. The translation, on a brass plaque at the bottom, reads: “The Courageous have no Fear – Confucius (551 B.C.)” It is an expression of an ideal, with many translations, and it reminds me that it’s not about having “no fear” but rather to “know fear.”

We’re human—we all make mistakes. But here’s the thing—we learn far more from failure than we do from success.

And that’s what makes every day—our Opening Day.

As our firm’s research shows, the more comfortable we become with failure, we see that it isn’t fatal—and it’s certainly not personal. Too often, when we fail at something, we see ourselves as failures. But who we are is not what we do, and failure can often be—and usually is—progress in disguise.

What looks like failure can open the door to the next opportunity—that is, if we fail fast and learn even faster. After all, it’s never about what we do at the moment of failure—it’s what we do next that matters most.

An executive confided to me how nimble his organization had been over the past few years amid much change and uncertainty. But now his concern was that people were slipping back to the old ways of doing things—too many task forces, less risk-taking, and more bureaucracy.

My response? “What’s the attitude toward failure?”

Don’t get me wrong, nobody roots for failure. But our conversation shifted—to the nuance of failure—and when it takes place, embracing it as a pathway to learning, rather than an impediment to progress. After all, our attitude is our altitude.

When we are no longer held back by the possibility or even the probability of failing at times, we increase our ability to take risks. We know that the far bigger danger is not taking any risks. After all, trying to stay static in a rapidly changing world is futile, at best.

Just like a great baseball player, none of us are going to get a hit every time or always make a perfect throw. Leadership, like life, doesn’t work that way.

What matters most is what we do next... and the time after that… and the time after that.