Key to business success: Learning from failure

By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal

During my professional career as a management and performance coach I have worked with a wide variety of people at all levels in organizational life. Nurses, doctors, PhD scientists, CEOs of multi-billion-dollar corporations, first-line supervisors, front line employees, you name it, I have worked with them all. Without question my current arrangement, working with owners and CEOs of privately held small to midsize companies, is my favorite and most rewarding.

There is something about being associated with people who are playing the game with their own money that is both exhilarating and satisfying. Smaller businesses are the life blood of our economy. That’s not just a saying, that’s the truth. Every business, regardless of size, was at one time a small enterprise that began as a dream in someone’s mind.

All businesses are not destined to become large. Eventual growth depends on a lot of factors. There is, however, one factor in particular that makes as much or more difference than all others: the owner or business leader’s tolerance for failure.

You might think business success depends on the desire for success or some other appetite, but you’d only be partially correct. It takes a willingness to tolerate risk to even start a business, it takes even more of that same willingness to sustain a failure, recover and decide to continue to risk. I do not have a single business leader in my group who has not failed in some way, and from that failure profited in a most surprising manner. They have learned that they can survive failure, gained strength and humility from the experience and continue to pursue their dream.

Sometimes I hear a business leader spout, “Failure is not an option!”

Honestly, I cannot think of anything that speaks more to ignorance about life or business in general, unless we are only taking on things where we know going in that we are going to win. Those are generally pretty small games that do not interest the best players. And certainly, there is little to learn from someone who only plays games they know they can win.

Yes, we celebrate winners in our culture and rightly so; without winning sometimes there would not be a future to build on. But the business leaders I know who are honest with themselves will tell you they have had their butts kicked. Their own failures and subsequent survivals, along with the learning that goes with them, is what allows a smaller business leader to reaffirm their commitment to their dream and choose to continue to grow, risk, play the game and create opportunity for others to play.

The person who begins a business and experiences failure, learns from it and continues to play, also develops another muscle: being able to tolerate the failure of others. This is ultimately the key to business growth and also very likely why so few people actually start a business — because it is not just that failure is an option, it is a real and likely possibility, especially if you get other people involved.

In any given pursuit where risk is involved, the probability of something not happening is likely far greater than it happening. If you add in more people you introduce the probability of even more failure. Since the beginning of reason we have intuitively known this. We get Shakespeare in the 1600’s reminding us, in his play Macbeth:

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time; …
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

And so it goes for many people. Yet for those few willing to look into the face of failure and learn from it, we have the counter message from George Bernard Shaw in 1903:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Thank goodness for the unreasonable man or woman who ventures to start a business and learn from their failures.

I’ll finish today with words, circa 2017, from someone for whom you likely already have high regard …

“Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what we grow beyond. That is the true burden of a master.” —Yoda, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Mike Cook ‘s columns appear on every other Tuesday. He facilitates a CEO peer advisory group in the Whatcom/Skagit area. He can be reached at He recently published ‘Thriving in the Middle: Why Managers Need to Be Coaching Each Other

Related Stories