Failure As A Positive Event

Sept. 1, 2003
Right about now you might just be wondering if good old Harry Carter has lost his way in the world.
Right about now you might just be wondering if good old Harry Carter has lost his way in the world. How is it possible, you might ask, that failure can be a positive event? Is not failure a bad thing? Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (2003) defines failure as an, " ? omission of occurrence or performance." Seems like a bad thing, does it not? It seems like you did something wrong.

I would suggest that you revisit the wise old adage that tells us all, " ? nothing ventured nothing gained.? You have heard that one, haven?t you? Why of course you have. Your mother and father probably told you that when you were just a wee lad or lass. The person who first stated that maxim was not concerned with failing to succeed. They were obviously more concerned with people who failed to act.

I am sure that you know that type of person. Perhaps you have even worked for or with them. On your best day, you could not pin them down to make a decision, even at the point of a revolver. Some people are so afraid of life and its consequences that they fail to accomplish anything more than compile an attendance record, rather than a list of accomplishments.

Wake up gang. Failure is a part of life. Nothing is guaranteed. You cannot hide from failure. However, I want to urge you to keep pressing on in spite of the problems you may be facing in your life and career. As Lord Tennyson stated back in 1850, " ?tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."

Let me use that quotation as the platform to build my argument upon here today. Let everyone remember that it was Harry Carter who said that, "It is better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all.? That could probably be the motto that has sparked my manifold efforts at weight control over the past four decades. I can only imagine how much worse off I would be were it not for my periodic efforts to reign in my appetite.

Let me now offer a more solid example of what I mean. Right now I am in the midst of a fairly complex academic research project. As part of a course I am completing in quantitative analysis, I am working to create, define, and test a decision model. Now that is a fairly weighty task on a good day. To me this is more than an assignment. It is something that may be critical to many of you in the fire service.

I am working to create a series of decision tables that will allow for the studied determination of the point of critical action for an important fire service problem. Perhaps you have already faced this problem or it may be that it lies out in front of you and your department.

What criteria does a department need to meet in order to make the jump from an all-volunteer operation to a combination fire department by hiring career staff?

For far too many of you across our nation, this critical operational decision has been the subject of intense battles. Some people have acted in the past, based upon uninformed decisions. Others have battled the concept because it was new and alien. Still others fought it, because there was no way to statistically defend it.

I hope that I will have something in place by the end of this fall that will allow you to plug in the facts of your situation so that you can come to a decision after a careful review of the stated facts. Will I succeed? I do not know? Will I fail? Heck, that is always a possibility. However, I want to assure you that I intend to try very hard to make this concept work.

As one who has fought the battle of the bulge for more than five decades, I have learned that life does not always go the way you want it to. Failure is a part of life. Sadly there are still those folks out there who just do not get that fact. These people fall into one of two categories.

  • Those that expect perfection
  • Those that hide from change and expect you to do the same

During my research last week, I identified an extremely interesting statistic. Management theorist Professor Paul C. Nutt from the Ohio State University published a paper a number of years ago that really caught my attention. The title literally jumped right off of the screen at me as I scrolled through the on-line library where I do my research. The title tells the story and supports my hypothesis this week.

Surprising But True: Half the Decisions in Organizations Fail

Wouldn't that title catch your attention too? Dr. Nutt studied 356 major decisions made by corporations in the United States and Canada. He has been studying this phenomenon for more than two decades. His latest research affirms his past work. That would seem to indicate that human nature is getting in the way of effective decision-making.

His research indicates that there are some really good reasons for this failure rate. He listed the following:

  • Managers and administrators fail to imply that action will be a part of the decision.
  • Managers and administrators fail to set their expectations prior to any search for alternatives being conducted.
  • These people fail to set objectives, even though they talk about them.
  • These people lack a vision for their organizations.
  • They choke off any attempt at active participation by their employees.
  • Managers and administrators look for the easy way out or the short cut.
  • Managers copy the success of other organizations even though their organization and the parameters for their decision within that organization are different. (Nutt, 1999, p. 1-3)

I do not know about you, but I see a number of striking examples in this research regarding behaviors that I have seen on more than one occasion. One of the primary tactics that my dealings in the area of leadership have taught me is really quite simple. Look for the cause of the problem not the symptoms. This suggestion is usually followed by another word or two of wisdom. Never jump for the first solution you discover. Set your parameters and build your decision.

Does this series of problems suggest that you should avoid making decisions because they may well fail? No. Like I said earlier in this commentary, failure is a part of life. I would urge you to be an optimist. Take the opposite side of the coin and look at the title in its opposite form. Half of all decisions succeed.

Think about it. How often have you heard that half of all marriages end in divorce? Has that choked off the desire for people to get married?

Let me offer the following critical thought to those of you who now operate in positions of leadership. Create success by allowing your troops to try. Sometimes they will do well. At other times they will not do well. However you must give them the slack to try. Do not kick them when they are down.

Nothing in life is cast in concrete except the proverbial death and taxes. I would urge you to adopt the lyrics of an old song that came spinning into my head as I was writing this commentary. "Pick yourself up; dust yourself off; and start right over again.

Given the tone and tenor of many of your messages to me, I would suggest that you are tough enough and smart enough to do just that. I had a fellow from New England drop me a note the other day. He indicated that he and his fellow volunteers were being treated poorly by some of the full-time members of his organization. He suggested that they wanted to run him and his buddies off. He suggested that he had made his decision to keep trying.

There is a man after my own heart. I have been in situations where people would have dearly wished me every ounce of bad luck that could be summoned on their behalf to heap upon me. It took me quite awhile to toughen up. Those of you who really know me have seen me shed a tear over the important decisions I have made that did not turn out well. However, these same people have seen me pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again. Sounds familiar doesn?t it?

I suggest that all of you need to come to grips with failure. Think about Nixon's loss to Kennedy in 1960. That was failure taken to a grand scale. Then think about Nixon's comeback in 1968. That was success of the first rank. I can be sure that there are many among you who do not like Nixon. True, he was not the most honest man on the block, however in light of other Presidents that might be mentioned, he was not all that bad.

I shall never forget that it was his 1969 effort to make the armed forces of the Republic of Vietnam assume a greater role in fighting that unpopular war that brought me home in time for Christmas that year. That was the Christmas when I rekindled my broken relationship with my high school sweetheart.

Nixon made it possible for me to be there. He gave me the chance to try and correct a serious mistake I had made earlier in my life. It was then up to me to determined whether I would succeed or fail in my quest for love. Let me state here and now that my former high school sweetheart and I just celebrated our 31st anniversary. That too is success of the greatest magnitude.

Try to live life to its fullest. If you fall down, get up. If you are beaten down, fight back. If you fail, write it off as experience and push on. Just remember, failure is a part of life. Life is tough. It is like Shakespeare once said, "Sweet are the uses of adversity." So live life to the fullest and search for the sweet spots.

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