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What Leaders need to know about failure: when Jack Welch blew up the plant


Guest articles > What Leaders need to know about failure: when Jack Welch blew up the plant


by: Phil Dourado


Failure is not the opposite of success, says Phil Dourado, leadership author and founder of . Organizations, particularly their formal leaders, need to re-think failure, he argues in this short article.

ARNIE ON FAILURE:  ‘If you fail, try, try again. Then bring in the stunt double.’ - Arnold Schwarzenegger, quoted in Vanity Fair

You probably don’t think of yourself as a failure. But, you or so-called ‘leaders’ in your organization may find it a useful label to hang on others. Allocating blame when things go wrong is a longstanding convention for maintaining the myth of leader infallibility. It poisons your culture, as those below will follow the lead. Using the authority of position to cascade blame becomes the norm.

The best leaders adopt a different perspective on failure, encouraging a forgive and remember culture. Firstly, you separate failure from the person – it’s an occurrence, not an inherent trait*. Secondly, you make it clear some failures are a desirable outcome of trying new things. Thirdly, you set in place practices for limiting damage when failure occurs and for capturing & sharing learning. (*The caveat is, of course, that even with the best recruitment methods you can end up with someone who repeats mistakes or just makes too many and has to be moved or leave.)

This last – sharing learning to prevent repetition of mistakes - is where most organizations still fail.

Here’s Jack Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric, illustrating the importance of leaders tolerating failure, with an episode from his own past:

Kirsty Wark: I understand one of the first things you did at GE was blow up the plant you were working in and that it had a profound effect on you. Can you explain?

Jack Welch: I did accidentally blow up the plant, yes. I was about 25 and had been experimenting with a different mixture. There was an explosion. I was scared stiff when I went to the manager. But, he was mainly curious as to why I had done what I had done and what I had learnt from it. ‘Would the process I was trying have worked,’ is what interested him! That real encouragement to get it right rather than a punishment did have a profound effect on me, yes. (1)

Admit it: you would have fired him.

The road to wisdom? Well, it's plain and simple to express:
and err
and err again
but less
and less
and less
 -- Piet Hein, Danish inventor and poet.

Limiting the damage of failure

Use pilots to limit the damage when trying new ways of working. The three principles of successful pilots are: Think big. Start small. Scale fast.

Another useful phrase to try and embed in your culture to help limit the damage of failure is a simple four-word formula that gets the message across: Only make new mistakes.

If you can embed this phrase into your culture as a way of managers setting expectations, it becomes clear to all that an absence of mistakes is a sign that people aren’t stretching themselves and trying new things. But, it also makes it clear that you need to share the learning from mistakes to prevent that mistake being repeated.

Mechanism for spreading learning from mistakes

Jack Welch again: “We celebrated mistakes at a management gathering with 1,000 people in the room. A manager would get up and say why the environmentally sensitive light bulb or whatever it was…had failed…Then we’d give them $1,000 or a TV or something, depending on the scale of the thing. The point was to share the learning and get smarter as an organization.”(1)

On the other hand…

You will hear again and again in leadership development circles the mantra ‘Learn from mistakes & failures’. But, in among the din of all that noisy received wisdom, I recently heard one voice point out that there is an uber-message about failure; a message that is more important than ‘learn from your mistakes’. I heard Bob Geldof say this at the end of 2006:

“The Bob Dylan line always appealed to me: ‘There’s no success like failure and failure is no success at all.’ It was a while before I understood it. Leaders need the ability to fail and then get up and go on. It doesn’t matter if you don’t learn from the failure. But it does matter that you get up and get on.”

USEFUL CONCEPT The Tripping Point (2): Refers to those moments in life where you land on your backside and suddenly realize, with blinding clarity, that you got it wrong. For great leaders at all levels in an organization, these are significant illumination points in life where the shock of failure sears into you, you learn, change and, as Geldof says above, get up and move on. And you show other people by your own example how to do it.

And, finally…who’s this failure?

(Thank you to Professor Aidan Halligan for sharing this with me):
1831 Failed in business
1832 Defeated for congress
1834 Failed in business
1835 Sweetheart died
1836 Had nervous breakdown
1838 Defeated for Congress
1843 Defeated for Congress
1846 Defeated for Congress
1848 Defeated for Congress
1855 Defeated for US Senate
1856 Defeated for Vice-President
1858 Defeated for US Senate
1860 Elected sixteenth President of the USA

Clue: Tall chap. Beard. Probably shouldn’t have gone to the theatre. One of the most revered US Presidents in history.



(1) Keynote interview, European Conference on Customer Management, London, 2004, organized by The excerpts here are from my shorthand notes. (2) I know, I wish I’d thought of it, too. But, I spotted the phrase ‘The Tripping Point’ in the book Success Built to Last: Creating a Life That Matters, Jerry Porras’ follow-up to Built To Last.

Worth reading: Why CEOs Fail, David Dotlich, Peter Cairo et al. Eleven reasons leaders fail. Not just for CEOS, despite the title. My favourite is Number 4: ‘Excessive Caution: The next decision you make may be your first…’

Article copyright Phil Dourado, leadership speaker, writer, consultant and author of The 60 Second Leader: Everything you need to know about leadership, in one minute bites, which you can find on Amazon. Contact: More free leadership resources in Phil’s online leadership development community:


Contributor: Phil Dourado

Published here on: 3-Dec-07

Classification: Leadership, Emotion


MSWord: What Leaders need to know about failure.doc

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