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Where Real Progress Comes From—Learning from Failures Part 2

By CAL Founding President Samuel Kim

In line with my article shared last week about the three ways in which we could shift our perspective on failure, here are my second and last points.

Second, we need to pay attention to the failure itself and its possible root causes; otherwise, we will be limited in our capacity to learn and make improvements.

A mistake rarely occurs in a vacuum but rather stems from a variety of reasons, such as mounting feelings of distrust and doubt among colleagues, indifference to key changes taking place, or uninformed or unethical behavior. We need to have the courage to ask difficult questions if we are to hone in on such causes. The bail-out of the General Motors in 2008, which cost the US government close to US $10 billion, offers one clear example. The catalyst for the company’s crisis was a faulty ignition switch that cost many innocent lives; but the bigger problems within the company were poor management, a culture of non-confrontation, managerial arrogance, and unaccountability.

If GM had acknowledged its failures and mistakes, studied what went wrong, and been willing to learn from its errors, many of the company’s troubles could have been resolved at a much earlier stage.

Usually, when things start to go wrong, we need to look critically at our surroundings, accept that things can and do go wrong, and examine our errors so that we can learn from them.

Lastly, we must take bold steps to ensure that what we learn generates real progress.

This could mean going so far as to change our norms, our behavior, and the values that we have been practicing for years. Though this is not an easy task and can rarely be achieved without experiencing additional setbacks, we must be willing to change ourselves if we want to cause real progress in our society.

In an interesting dialogue, I had with some executives at Samsung a few years back, one person mentioned that for Samsung to stay in and lead the game, everything in the executives’ lives must be subject to change (with the exception of spouses and children).

If we make a mistake or fail in an endeavor, the best response is not simply to stay cool and let it disappear into the past, but rather to draw the gem out of it, learn what steps we can take to do better, and so move toward a more sustainable future.


Stay tuned for Part 3! Interested in bringing leadership programs to your organization? Visit our Adaptive Leadership Signature Program Page.

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