Olympic Lesson for Business: Failure Can Build Resilience
By Gael O’Brien
Watching athletes compete in the 2014 winter Olympics was a panorama of risking, perfecting and making mistakes -- where some won medals and everyone demonstrated resilience, learning from mistakes to try again.
Overcoming challenges is also second nature to business leaders, but when fear of failure leads to covering up mistakes and ethical misconduct, it provides another reason why ethics and values should be tied to business strategy. It also raises questions about how organizations can better equip potential leaders in developing resilience. Resilience and deeply-held values reinforce each other. Their absence derails careers.
A case in point is Kareem Serageldin, a Yale graduate and former managing director of Credit Suisse, sentenced to 30 months in prison for fraud during the mortgage crisis. His lawyer said Serageldin "was under great pressure during the credit crisis and made a big mistake when confronted with failure for the first time."
Early failures, kept in perspective and learned from, helped shape resilience. Serageldin’s “first failure” was a blockbuster. Perhaps the roadmap to success was too well scripted: talent, single-minded focus on doing all it takes to get ahead (coupled with the right connections), luck and favorable conditions. If we don’t understand there will be an inevitable bump in the road when things fall apart, and have practice drawing on our values, there is only fear to fortify us at the crossroads.
We may think being a perfectionist helps us move up through the ranks, but it can be a time bomb. In a recent Financial Times article on reining in perfectionism, London Business School’s Nigel Nicholson talked about the pitfalls of organizations that have the attitude “We are the best” because it can encourage executives to have too high expectations, believing it will give them a leg up. Nicholson explains this can lead to unethical behavior by good people: “Terrible disasters have been caused by people airbrushing over mistakes they don’t want to admit,” says Nicholson. “Often driven by unreasonable expectations, such as ‘We are an organisation that doesn’t make mistakes,’ you are immediately encouraging people to conceal errors.”
The federal judge sentencing Serageldin criticized the culture at Credit Suisse and other banks that create a climate where wrongdoing can occur. Being “under great pressure” isn’t a defense; it is the new norm. Executives in our increasingly uncertain, high stress, and unpredictable world have to be able to operate ethically.
Here are two suggestions to support fostering ethical behavior in organizations:
Link Company Values to Business Strategy
Executive teams need to link their company’s values and statement of purpose to their business strategy so they marry business goals to what the company says it stands for. The more pressure uncertain global economies put on doing business, the more important it is to be anchored in a clarity, especially internally, of “how we do business.” Integrating business strategies with company values drives conversations about implications of business directions and creates a context for how crises should be addressed when the unexpected occurs.
Too often business strategy, company values and ethical behavior are in different silos, addressed separately. Incorporating values into how the company does business in a visible way necessitates identifying the behaviors that build trust and reputation internally and externally. It clarifies what is expected. It also forces examining how mistakes are addressed to ensure the culture isn’t sending a message mistakes aren’t tolerated so hide them.
What also defines the culture is the way leaders bounce back when their key initiatives don’t succeed or goals aren’t achieved. Their reactions create the model for how mistakes and failures are handled, whether it is a learning and continuous improvement culture or one where perfectionists take no prisoners.
Whether in dealing with mistakes or daily challenges, leaders need to address the impact that the stress of a constantly changing, fast-paced, 24/7 digital world has on them personally and fortify their resilience. This will have a significant impact on their ability to make effective decisions and foster ethical behavior. Leaders’ self-care is the equivalent, in airplane lingo, “of putting your own oxygen mask on first in the event of a change in cabin pressure.”
There are a number of ways to do this and it starts with clarifying one’s own values and what is held deeply, one’s purpose beyond making money, and how to refuel and recharge. Resilience is fortified by making time for deeper self-awareness and reflection cultivating spiritual intelligence, practicing mindfulness, and nurturing emotional intelligence.
Self-care is especially important because what leaders do to support themselves also equips them to support their direct reports, who in turn do that for their teams and so on. This “care” serves to foster engaged cultures where people feel valued and support each other in creating success.
The Olympic athletes have returned to their respective countries. They remind us that no one is too big to fail and rather than fear it, they train themselves to acknowledge mistakes, find out how to correct them, and try again. It is a lesson of resilience that makes everyone a winner. And it works in board rooms as well.
Gael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics and is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine.