Strategy is about failure too


Never let a good crisis go to waste

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It’s a great unspoken truth: crisis and failure are part and parcel of being a manager and leader.

That truth can be deeply uncomfortable to confront. Or it can be a relief. We’re taught – explicitly in management models, and implicitly in the expectations of senior leaders – that errors, mistakes and crises should be foreseen, mitigated, eliminated.

But the reality is different. In a complex, competitive and unpredictable world, things do go wrong. That fact has implications for us personally and for our organizations. Learning how to handle adversity is a vital part of personal success as a leader. It should be part of how leaders shape their organizations too.

Unfortunately, the evidence says most organizations could do much better on this front. CMI’s latest white paper, Bouncing Back, shows that while 94% of managers admit to having faced crises, only just over half feel they managed the problems posed by the crisis well – and only 36% feel they were able to effectively manage how it hit them emotionally. The results include dents in managers’ confidence (81%), stress that affected their personal life (79%) and, for many, a direct drop-off in their performance at work (63%).

Asked what would have made the biggest difference to how they handled their crises, managers look for more support from their line manager or from their senior leaders. That could mean practical help in solving a problem, but it can also be about reassurance, backing
and encouragement.

To be effective, that can’t start just as the moment of crisis arrives. Leaders need to set a tone that makes it okay to fail, and destigmatizes failure. All too often in business – as in society more widely – we’re quick to point the finger of blame. Just think of television show The Apprentice and the signals it sends about management and leadership. That hardwires fear into how teams work and, by ratcheting up the pressure, could induce paralysis and poor decision making.

We spoke to a number of leaders in depth about their experiences. Sir Gareth Rhys Williams, the British government’s chief commercial officer, reflected that he’d started his career in a business where the message from leadership was: “‘I don’t mind if you make mistakes, I just don’t want surprises’; ‘If you aren’t making mistakes you aren’t working hard enough’; and ‘Only 51% of your decisions have to be right, as long as one of the other 49% doesn’t kill us.’” As he said, “That tone from the guy at the top creates a totally different mindset. To have that background has been really helpful.”

Crises are an inevitable part of a manager’s professional life. They can break or make a career. They can be devastating, life changing, transformative. They can ruin relationships and working cultures – or solidify them and make them stronger.

Whether the nature of the crisis is personal or related to business challenges, whether the causes were external economic factors or internal matters, crises can deeply affect those involved and their performance in the workplace.

The challenge is to learn from the crises that erupt around us so that we become better leaders, and to help others learn to fail well. We learn as much – or more – from defeat as from victory. Make sure those in your teams and businesses have the support they need to fail, to learn, and to bounce back strongly.
— Find CMI’s white paper, Bouncing Back: Leadership Lessons in Resilience – plus video interviews with the likes of former BP chief executive Lord Browne, the original ‘rogue trader’ Nick Leeson, and the lawyer who stood up to online sexism, Charlotte Proudman – at


Patrick Woodman is Head of external affairs at the Chartered Management Institute