Failure or Success—It’s a Grand Illusion
Setback or comeback. Failure or success. Luck or destiny.
The difference between them can be a very fine line. Look no further than this year’s Winter Olympics, where the difference between the gold medal “thrill of victory” and the “agony of defeat” is measured in hundredths of seconds.
I have discovered that narrow bridge between failure and success to be learning and, then of course, courage. Similarly, what turns setback into comeback is determination coupled with perseverance.
In sports or in leadership, one of the most important lessons I have learned is that:
It doesn’t matter what you do at
the moment of failure; it’s what you
do afterward that counts most.
That’s what came to mind when I recently watched the NFL playoff game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Kansas City Chiefs. The Colts had gone into the second half down 28 points, and the Indianapolis quarterback, Andrew Luck, was drawing boos from the hometown crowd, having thrown two interceptions. At that exact moment of the game, the statistical probability of a Colts victory was a mere 3.6 percent, according to ESPN. But the improbable is exactly what happened, as Luck subsequently turned setback into the second-largest comeback in NFL playoff history, winning 45-44.
What was equally remarkable, however, was Luck’s demeanor throughout the game, even after a failed play: no slumped shoulders or panicked expressions. Instead, you could see the confidence in his eyes. When a Colts running back fumbled at the goal line after a long drive with little over 10 minutes left in the game, Luck instinctively grabbed the ball and dived head-first into the end zone for a touchdown. For Luck, a Heisman Trophy winner (and previously featured on the cover of Briefings), this wasn’t a case of “luck” at all. Here was the “good fortune” that results when preparation meets opportunity.
The same applies to us, if we learn from failure and embrace setback as a temporary moment in which preparation and determination must collide to create opportunity. No matter how many times we “throw interceptions,” we almost always get another chance to play quarterback. The question then becomes, do you trust your own passing or hand the ball off to the running backs?
There are two endpoints in life, but the shortest path between them will not be a straight line. Similarly, leadership is not linear. You must have a Plan C for Plan B for Plan A, but none of those plans should include surrender. I recall former West Point Superintendent and Army Gen. Buster Hagenbeck telling me, “I’ve been in a lot of fights — never on the night before a battle did I sit up with my sergeants and captains and say, ‘Gee, I hope we win tomorrow.’ Losing is just not an option.”
As a leader, it’s not about you, but it starts with you.
However, leaders don’t stage a comeback just for themselves. They are propelled by purpose, by others. Nelson Mandela came back from 27 years in prison to lead his nation, because he believed in a unified South Africa. Abraham Lincoln endured numerous setbacks in business and politics to become the greatest president in U.S. history because he had the strength and moral conviction to keep the nation from splintering apart.
And on the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan in late February 2002, Gen. Hagenbeck — now retired — led a mission known as Operation Anaconda, an intense battle against more than 1,000 foreign al-Qaeda. No matter that U.S. and allied troops were outnumbered and the conditions were extremely harsh; victory was never in question for Hagenbeck.
As the general told me the story, I was impressed by his quiet confidence and compassion for the soldiers under his command. His eyes dampened as he told of 28 soldiers wounded in the first 30 minutes of fighting — and of an Army Ranger who was captured and killed. Hagenbeck’s concern for his soldiers was boundless. In return, his troops were inspired followers, not just soldiers taking orders. Just a few weeks ago after that NFL playoff game, Colts Head Coach Chuck Pagano (a comeback story himself, after missing nearly all of last season as he battled cancer) described the Luck-led victory as “one for the ages.” The quarterback, sounding an awful lot like a general on a battlefield, summed it up differently: This was his job, what he and the team had been trained to do. As one teammate told Sports Illustrated, “You see his eyes get focused and he says, ‘We are going to go on a drive [for a touchdown], right now.’ ” In other words, Luck is a leader — making others believe and enabling that belief to become reality.
There is something about a comeback, about hardship, about overcoming the odds, about victory for the “little guy,” that is more sustaining and holistically motivating than stories of riches, fame, celebrity and success. Why? Possibly because most of us can relate to an “underdog.” Or because arriving at the destination or achieving the goal is not as sustainable or impressionable as the memories and learnings of the trials and tribulations of the journey.
For these reasons, one must derive humbleness from success and allow failure to impart wisdom.
This should remind us that leading is less about strategy and decision making and much more about empowering, believing and connecting emotionally with others.
If you are looking for others to believe in you, you will be waiting a long time for results — rather, believe in others, and you will be amazed by the results.