Setbacks and Failure: The Proper Perspective

By Pepper de Callier

Many years ago, over a twelve month period, I traveled across America interviewing twenty seven high profile CEOs focusing on one question: How has failure made you a better leader?

Some of their stories were absolutely Dickensian—a mother taking her son to an orphanage because she couldn’t stand to be around him, others involved deceit and theft on the part of a loved one, in one case a man’s wife had started stabbing him in the back – literally –while he slept, and, of course there was the garden variety of failures due to market conditions, ego, inexperience—you name it—it was all there.  These champions of life had all experienced tremendous failures or setbacks that were either thrust upon them or were self-induced.  Their collective attitude toward failure and setbacks, though, was absolutely amazing to me.  They all had a perspective that allowed them to view failure as a stepping stone to personal success and wisdom about this journey we call life.  I think Jimmy Dean, founder of Jimmy Dean Sausage Company and American icon, summed up the thinking of these people best when he said, “You know, Pepper, I may not be able to change the direction of the wind, but I can sure change the direction of my sails to get to where I want to go.”

Two things, later in life, would bring the lessons and the message of these exceptional leaders into sharper focus—recruiting CEOs for clients of mine and working with MBA students.

I would never let an interview with a CEO finish without asking when they had experienced failure in their careers, what they’d learned from that experience and how they’d applied the lessons learned.  If they told me they hadn’t experienced failure of some sort, I would not advance them in the recruiting process—they either weren’t doing enough in their careers that took them out of their comfort zones, or their ego would not allow them to admit failure.  One indicates a lack of self confidence and initiative and the other a lack of reality—neither of which is a desirable trait in a leader.  Failure is what we experience when we try new things, when we stretch – when we reach for incredible heights, when we experience our limitations, when we find out what we don’t know or can’t do and need to learn or practice.  Failure can also be what galvanizes us to change, learn, grow and be better at what we do.  The survival of these “near-death” experiences can go a long way in creating the strength, wisdom, humility and understanding that makes strong leaders and wise people. 

As a member of the Advisory Board of the College of Business and Guest lecturer at California State University San Marcos I had the wonderful and fulfilling experience of working with MBA students who were eager and motivated to learn.  In one open-forum discussion I remember looking out at the faces of these students, I could just sense the adrenaline, the hopes and the dreams of these entrepreneurs and leaders-to-be.  In our discussion, and by the looks on their faces when I suggested discussing it, though, it became obvious to me that the topic of setbacks or failing wasn’t part of the program.   I could sense an initial reaction of uneasiness in even bringing up the topic—that “failure happens to ‘those’ idiots who don’t know what they’re doing” reaction.  But, with one of my favorite “failure” stories, the ice was broken and we began to engage in discussion.  I told them about that famous incident that took place many years ago in a promising young company called IBM.  The exchange took place between the legendary Thomas Watson, Jr., son of the founder of IBM and then President, and one of his senior engineers, who had just made a mistake (a failure), which cost the company $10 million.  The engineer entered Watson’s office, eyes downcast and, after explaining what happened and the cost to the company as a result, he resigned.  “Nonsense!” replied Watson, “If you think I’m going to let you go after investing $10 million in your education, you’re crazy!” 

Dealing with, and learning from, failure and setbacks – having the right perspective – is an indispensable part of success.

My hope is that more and more business school programs incorporate dialogue about this topic and more and more people in general realize how powerful and uplifting a setback or failure can be if you choose to learn its lessons of growth and discovery.

About the Author: Pepper de Callier is one of the most respected senior executive coaches and authorities on leadership in Europe. Learn more about him at

*These are reprints from Pepper de Callier‘s newspaper column in Hospodarske noviny.  

Common Sense Wisdom: Thoughts to Live By

From beginning September 3rd, 2012, you will be able to start your week with an insight, or new perspective that will help you move closer to your goals as a professional and a personally fulfilling life as one of today’s most respected coaches, authors and leadership authorities, Pepper de Callier, shares his thoughts with you in a short inspirational video of two to four minutes every Monday morning on YouTube in a series titled Common Sense Wisdom: Thoughts to Live By

Top companies on
Expedia ManpowerGroup Utilitywise Prague Grafton Recruitment s.r.o. Amadeus Media Group Dorset Recruitment