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Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes, and Thinking Big
By Ralph Heath

Following is an excerpt from Chapter One of the book,  “Starting Fires”:

“Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion. You must start yourself on fire.”
—Fred Shero, National Hockey League coach

It was a cold spring day in 1957, a Saturday as I recall. My best friend, Edgar Hoffman, and I were playing with matches, as young children sometimes do. We were in the basement of a ranch home being constructed in our Milwaukee neighborhood. Because it was a weekend, the work crew was not on the site, leaving Edgar and me free to roam about the new home construction.

Edgar and I had each constructed our own private fort within the partially built structure. Edgar had just committed the corporate sin of exaggerating his résumé by declaring he had a warm fire roaring inside his fort. I took that as a challenge. (I was freezing my butt off, and I was always the competitive one.) So that morning, in the fort, what little testosterone I did have took over, and I set out to build a bigger fire than Edgar’s. Our forts were made of straw so it didn’t take long for me to set off a major house fire.

Fire trucks are terrifying when you’re a little boy—especially if you know you are the criminal responsible for burning down the rough construction around someone’s new home. I can remember being told to go to my room and await my punishment. It was not the time to ask if I could help the firemen put out the fire. And I can remember waiting in my room, certain it would be several years before I would be allowed to see the sun again, or worse, that I would be carted away to juvenile detention.

I never did learn who called the fire department, but I do know it was my dad who called the police after the fire was out. He told them that his son was responsible for starting the fire. He confessed to me, years later, that it was one of the hardest things he ever had to do. I told him that I had always admired him for doing it because it was so honest, and my dad was all about honesty. (Four years later, when Dad took us to an outdoor drive-in movie theater, the ticket-taker asked the ages of everyone in the car. My dad offered up that Edgar had just turned 12 yesterday and was therefore not eligible for free admission. He bought the extra ticket for Edgar. At the time, I cringed thinking what a waste of money it was, but years later I realized that my dad was setting the example of honesty, an example that I have followed, and will follow, the rest of my life.)

I learned multiple extraordinary lessons the day of the fire: When you make a mistake, it is best to simply tell the truth and take your lumps. It wasn’t a malicious fire; I was trying to stay warm and was merely a dumb little kid trying to compete with my best friend (who was two years older and wiser than I was).

After being sent to my room the night of the fire, I did, in fact, see the sun again. My dad knew that I was horrified by what I had done, and he didn’t have to dole out extra punishment. In his wisdom, he played off of my remorse and told me he was disappointed, and knew that I could perform at a higher level the next time.

That is what presidents of companies must do. Your people are most often always trying their best to please you. Sometimes, in our frustration with an employee, we forget that most important dynamic. They already feel horrible when they make a mistake, and, most often, the best thing to do is to encourage them to reach a higher standard the next time they are given an opportunity to perform.

The great thing about making a mistake is that the bar is now moved pretty low, and you get the opportunity to rush in and correct the problem and suggest a positive solution. It is an opportunity to demonstrate that you listen, that you understand what you did wrong, and that you can solve the problem when given a second chance. Plus, everyone enjoys an underdog story of coming up from the depths of mistakes and failures to achieve success.

Ironically, I made the connection years later that starting little fires is what presidents do most often. When I started that fire at six years old, I was merely warming up for my ultimate job as a leader and company president.

A leader’s mission is to look for opportunities to grow the business inside your company and motivate your people in that particular area of expertise to raise the bar to new heights. Even if you’re running a relatively small company, similar to my former advertising agency, you can’t possibly work effectively across seven or more departments to direct operations yourself. You need smart, talented, and highly motivated people who will see the little fire you lit and lead the charge to make changes inside the company to pursue even higher highs. And after you’ve provided the spark, small flame, or flame-throwing mechanism on each issue, you get to move on and light more fires in other departments, and thus spread the gospel of trial by fire and the lessons it teaches all of us.

The fort-building fire story is one of many sparks that led me to write Celebrating Failure. I’m grateful my dad set the right tone in allowing me to recover from my failure.

Starting Fires is excerpted from author, consultant, and keynote speaker Ralph Heath’s new book Celebrating Failure:  The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Thinking Big published by Career Press.