How Do Leaders Manage Failure?

Image Source: “Failure is the stepping stone to success” is probably the most common quote we hear. Life is definitely not a bed of roses and failure is an integral part of life. Being afraid of failure and succumbing to it only worsens the situation. Though the quote is a common one, how many of us try to imbibe its meaning and really use failure as a stepping stone rather than a stumbling block? There are times when even the best of leaders face failure in spite of giving their best shot. What is important is not the failure in itself, but what happens AFTER the failure. I recently came across a wonderful real-life anecdote which was narrated by none other than the former President of India, Dr. Abdul Kalam. A question was posed to him as to how leaders can manage failure. Dr.Kalam narrated his own personal experience when he was working for the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). The anecdote is reproduced below. In 1973, I was the Project Director of India’s satellite launch vehicle program, commonly called the SLV-3. Our goal was to put India’s “Rohini” satellite into the orbit by 1980. I was given funds and human resources — but was clearly told that by 1980, we had to launch the satellite into space. Thousands of people worked together in scientific and technical teams towards that goal. By 1979, we were ready. As the Project Director, I went to the control center for the launch. Four minutes before the satellite launch, the computer began to go through the checklist of items that needed to be checked. One minute later, the computer program put the launch on hold; the display showed that some control components were not in order. My experts — I had four or five of them with me — told me not to worry; they had done their calculations and there was enough reserve fuel. So I bypassed the computer, switched to manual mode, and launched the rocket. In the first stage, everything worked fine. In the second stage, a problem developed. Instead of the satellite going into orbit, the whole rocket system plunged into the Bay of Bengal. It was a big failure. That day, the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organization, Prof. Satish Dhawan, had called a press conference. The launch was at 7:00 AM, and the press conference — where journalists from around the world were present — was at 7:45 AM at ISRO’s satellite launch range in Sriharikota. Prof. Dhawan, the leader of the organization, conducted the press conference himself. He took responsibility for the failure — he said that the team had worked very hard, but that it needed more technological support. He assured the media that in another year, the team would definitely succeed. Now, I was the Project Director, and it was my failure, but instead, he took responsibility for the failure as chairman of the organization. The next year, in July 1980, we tried to launch the satellite again — and this time we succeeded. The whole nation was jubilant. Once more, there was a press conference. Prof. Dhawan called me aside and told me, “You conduct the press conference today.” It’s a clear demonstration of the words of Ziad K. Abdelnour, “Never let success go to your head and never let failure go to your heart.” Another important lesson to learn here is: When the failure occurred, the leader of the organization owned up to that failure. When success came, he gave it to his team. “Managing failure comes naturally to true leaders.” – Naveen Lakkur

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