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Where Real Progress Comes From—Learning from Failures Part 1

By CAL Founding President Samuel Kim (Harvard MPA) 

In the next three weeks, I will be sharing three tips on how we can shift our perspectives on failure by learning and benefiting from it.

The 21st century is widely lauded as the Asian century. The success of Alibaba founder Jack Ma is often discussed alongside other entrepreneurial legends like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Britain’s Richard Branson. 

Celebrating success is not unusual in Asia. During my travels to over 20 Asian countries each year, I have met people eager to share all kinds of success stories, from economic growth to technological advances. However, when pressed for examples of failures or crises that they have encountered during their professional lives, they become overwhelmingly reluctant to share. 

As a Korean native, I can empathize with this behavior—the mentality of “face-saving” often inhibits us from revealing our shortcomings and mistakes.

Across Asia, failure is seen as shameful and a sign of weakness.

In countries like China, Korea, and Japan in particular, where the collective good takes precedence over the feelings of the individual when a person fails, the failure is seen not only as damaging the reputation of that person but also as letting down the person’s family and society at large. Not surprisingly, given this cultural tendency, Asian education systems do not allow much room for making mistakes, and punishment is often meted out on poor performers. 

Yet, as Asia plays an increasingly important role in the global marketplace and politics, I believe that failure-tolerant leaders are necessary if the region is to weather today’s uncertainties and complexities. If we as leaders want to cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit within our organizations, particularly among the young, who will one day take on the mantle of leadership, we must revisit the normative behavior of shaming failures. 

To shift our perspective on failure, I would like to suggest three things:

First, we must acknowledge failure as integral to meaningful progress. Rather than seeing failure as a weakness, we should acknowledge that to err is human and that people can gain wisdom from their failures, thus acquiring more power to bring about positive change.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who is well-known for recruiting people who have experienced failure, once said, “Failure and inventions are inseparable twins.” Similarly, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates sees every mistake as a “learning opportunity.” When we make mistakes, we are giving ourselves the opportunity to learn. When we provide our employees with a safe space in which to fail, we are inviting innovation into the corporate culture.

One memory that I cherish from my time at Harvard was a leadership class in which all we talked about, throughout the semester, was our failures and how we could learn from them.

Stay tuned for Part 2! Interested in bringing leadership programs to your organization? Visit our Adaptive Leadership Signature Program Page.