Real leaders possess the courage to fail
To me, what limits many of today’s leaders is obsessiveness with personal preservation. Whether it’s in politics or business, leaders who make decisions based solely on retaining their position of power are both weak and selfish.
It frustrates me that there are ever increasing examples of this populist approach in Australia and around the world. It’s a mentality that blinds those from taking the best course of action on the behalf of who they represent.
How can a leader inspire those around them if they’re constantly worried about themselves?
Having the courage to fail in order to meet a collective vision is the backbone of true leadership and it’s tragic that this has become such a rarity. I don’t mean people in power should take uncalculated risks, but if you aren’t willing to push the boundaries and test uncharted waters with the aim of achieving something great, then what’s the point?
I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, particularly a few months ago when I met with members of my staff to discuss CPA Australia’s 125th anniversary year. The objective of the meeting was to decide on who we would engage to mark this milestone and make it a truly unique experience.
It needed to be someone who, against all odds, had executed a vision and was instantly recognisable for accomplishing an outcome of global significance. A lot of names were tossed around; however there was one person we kept coming back to.
On paper, Neil Armstrong ticked all the boxes; he successfully executed not just the US’s vision, but a world’s vision to put a man on the moon. Millions of people believed in its importance and significance for mankind.
The opportunity of failure was extreme, but Neil and his team never deviated from their vision during the entire process. Successfully landing a “tin-can” on the lunar surface under such extreme, worldwide scrutiny and expectation showed true grit and real leadership qualities.
To cut a long story short, after a lot of investigation we finally managed to track down Neil and I travelled to the US to meet him. It was during lunch, when he began to reflect on his remarkable achievements, that I began to realise that he was everything I’d hoped he’d be.
Back in Australia, watching him share his stories and thoughts on leadership to absolutely captivated audiences was something I’ll never forget.
After that experience, I took pause. It occurred to me that we had engaged someone who’d documented a great leadership moment over 30 years ago. During his visit I still struggled to think of a current leader who could claim to have inspired the world to think bigger and dare to fail like Neil or others of his era.
It’s just so rare to see that sort of synergy in action these days. I kept returning to past leaders as the best examples of inspirational leadership.
I’m a realist – I’m not in the game of over-romanticising achievements, but I really do struggle to see the same levels of inspiration in today’s leadership.
It comes down to a lack of vision. In business, the collective vision is determined by the Board and implemented by the CEO and management. It usually involves a 3 to 5 year commitment to see it realised, but increasingly I’m seeing people in positions of power focusing on the short-term, making knee-jerk reactions based on populist feedback.
They deviate from their vision too easily, which to me suggests they never really believed in what they were trying to achieve. Share prices or opinion polls should not dictate how a leader makes decisions. This short-termism is a plague that has infected so many people that we trust to run the country, drive our economy and keep Australia ahead of the rest.
So how do we remedy this?
Really, it’s not that difficult. My belief is if you take a leadership position, whether it’s as a CEO, in government or as a boss of a small business, you have to keep in mind that it’s not about you anymore.
Leaders can’t operate on fear of losing their job. If they clearly articulate their vision, explain the benefit and how they intend to achieve it with the necessary stakeholders, then the chances of failure are minimised. People will criticise you along the way, but the worst thing to do is react and change course halfway through the journey to meeting the collective vision.
So come on you people with real ambition to lead: set a vision, make it known, be accountable to it and get behind it. Have the courage to fail.
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