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How to Turn a Fail Into a Win

Wednesday, March 14, 2018
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I love talking about failure, and how thinking differently about failure and mistakes often leads us down unexpectedly fruitful paths. The late jazz trumpeter Miles Davis once quipped, "Do not fear mistakes; there are none." That's mostly true when playing jazz, a type of music that celebrates spontaneous self-expression—warts and all—rather than perfection. Of course, there are times when failure really isn't an option (operating rooms and 747 cockpits come to mind). But when it comes to creativity and innovation, legendary basketball coach John Wooden's famous quote rings true: "If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything. I'm positive that a doer makes mistakes."

As a professional musician, I know a few things about mistakes. At a recent performance in Atlantic City, for example, I was all set to play the famous violin solo at the end of "Baba O'Riley" by The Who on my soprano saxophone—something I've done hundreds of times over the years. But on this occasion, after a good start, I somehow lost my way. I began to improvise until I could regain my footing; I'm pretty sure the crowd didn't notice, and I took the whole episode in stride. I knew instinctively that I had to keep playing, even if it meant just making stuff up until I could recover. I trusted myself to eventually find the right notes and re-enter the solo properly.

One of the best examples of how to turn a fail into a win was sent to me by a colleague. Watch this video as the young musician not only doesn't panic, but actually turns what could have been disastrous into something unforgettable.

Now that's grace under pressure personified. Here's another example: Observe how all three musicians respond when guitarist Kazumi Watanabe's instrument falls at 2:55 in this video.

There's no finger-pointing. Nobody is belittled or humiliated. Nobody shakes their head in disgust or grimaces or rolls their eyes. It's just something that happened. And these pros handle it with total confidence. The music never stops.

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Miles Davis and pianist Herbie Hancock recorded some of the greatest jazz in history together. A story about Miles, as told by Mr. Hancock, beautifully captures this critical aspect of being an effective leader. Even if you don't care for jazz, I think the lesson will resonate with you. Click here to watch the five-minute interview segment.

I love when Herbie says, "Miles didn't hear it as a mistake. He heard it as something that happened, just an event . . . [Miles] felt it was his responsibility to find something that fit." As the band leader, Miles could have easily humiliated Herbie for playing the incorrect chord. Instead, he chose to take Herbie's mistake and, through his own creativity and ingenuity, turn it into a surprising musical moment.

Now, I'm not advocating that leaders encourage mistakes. Nor am I proposing that leaders celebrate egregious mistakes born of ineptitude. What I'm suggesting is leaders always have a choice when mistakes are made (and they will be made). I believe leaders who inspire greatness in others adapt, adjust, and recalibrate. They take the opportunity to coach and learn without placing blame or pointing fingers. Of the many clients I've worked with over my career, the majority have identified their worst bosses as those who instilled a fear of mistakes and sought retribution when they occurred.

The incident described by Mr. Hancock reminds me of something another musical titan, Boston Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander, once said in an interview with USA Today: "I think it's tremendously important to develop a powerful relationship with failure. If you're a coward and stopped by failure there's no way to develop. Making mistakes is the most valuable training there is. My teacher used to say you can't play great music unless your heart has been broken. So maybe the answer is to have more broken hearts and get on with it. That's why I teach my students to celebrate mistakes. Every time they make mistakes I say, 'How fascinating!'"

It takes a special leader to look for the possibility and opportunity in mistakes. Are you that leader?

Want to learn more? Join me at the ATD 2018 International Conference & EXPO for the session: The 4 Pillars of Innovation: Unleashing the Power of Possibility.

About the Author
Michael Brenner is president of Right Chord Leadership, a company dedicated to helping people work in harmony. He is former president of the Greater Philadelphia chapter of ATD, an instructor of organizational behavior at Immaculata University, and a professional musician with 25 years of performance experience.
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