Fear of Failure: Why It’s Essential to Success

This is a guest post by Bill Blankschaen. Bill is a writer, speaker, ministry consultant and non-profit leader. He blogs at FaithWalkers at Patheos.

If you fear failure, you are not alone. A quick Google search reveals countless resources to help you overcome the fear of failure. Certainly, an unhealthy fear of failure can paralyze us and destroy the culture of the teams we lead. But the lack of any fear of failure can be just as deadly.

I recently enjoyed lunch with a friend who excels in sales for a large media company. Quite simply, he’s one of the best at what he does. Always eager to learn, I asked him what trait seemed to be shared by all the failed salespeople he has seen over the years. His reply? Overconfidence.

The most common characteristic of those who failed was that they all once thought failure to be impossible.

There’s an important lesson for us as leaders. When no one fears failing at all, our team gets complacent, inefficient, and starts to coast. As I’ve often reminded my teams, coasting kills. It’s when we think our ship is unsinkable that we stop looking for icebergs ahead — in spite of repeated warnings.

We all know how that story ends.

When No One Fears Failure

I recall an epiphany about this topic some years ago during a course on project management. The course took place inside the renowned Peter B. Lewis building on the campus of my alma mater, Case Western Reserve University.

An architectural marvel, it’s construction in 2003 quickly became a bloated project that exceeded budget by tens of millions of dollars. Ironically, the course compared the construction of that very building with a similar project that finished on time and under budget. When researchers studied the culture of the teams at work on the two projects, they discovered that the team involved with the successful project had a very real fear of failure.

The team constructing the Peter B. Lewis building did not. And it showed.

Why Is a Healthy Fear of Failure Essential to Success?

I’m not saying, of course, that leaders should break out the whips or try to intimidate their teams into success. But here are a few things that I’ve found to be true when we have a healthy fear of failure:

  • We’re motivated to move. Call it the stick portion of the carrot-and-stick routine if you will, but it’s also reality. Every parent of a teenager knows that their child will be suddenly motivated to learn how to do laundry when facing the prospect of attending a party without his or her favorite outfit. So it is with us adults. When we want to avoid a very real failure, we’re not likely to sit still.
  • We’re eager to take action. Ancient wisdom says that our hunger drives us forward — and that’s not a bad thing if you want to eat. Intentional leadership expert Michael Hyatt puts it this way when describing someone who is “hungry” to find success: “In short, a hungry person ‘plays full out,’ holding nothing back. More than anything, he wants to win and is willing to pay the price to do so.” Sounds like someone you’d want on your team, yes?
  • We’re more open to taking risks. There’s just no incentive to take risks when we’re drifting comfortably on the placid waters of Lake Status Quo. Calculated risks fuel our growth when we step out from where we are to where we want to be. There is no sure thing in leadership — except the consequences of standing still.
  • We’re driven to do just a little more. When we fear that failure may be a very real option, we tend to not fudge on the little things that will make the difference between failure and success. When racing through the deserts of Baja, for example, we’re more likely to double-check that spare tank of gas. So it is when we fear failure in our leadership efforts. We’re willing to make that extra call, send that additional e-mail, and tweak the ad campaign materials one last time to increase our margin for success.
  • We’re more likely to get creative. Necessity is the mother of all invention, after all. When we fear we just might fail, we’re more likely to stir the creativity pot. Dale Dauten says, “If you want to be creative… all it takes is one step. The extra one.” Assuming the fear of failure isn’t overwhelming you, that pressure can help produce some gems.
  • We’re inspired to learn from others. Coming face-to-face with the reality of potential failure can humble us. And that’s a good thing. As Kevin Hall, author of the book Aspire notes, it’s in the fertile soil of humility that the seeds of success can best sprout. When we think we might not be able to figure things out on our own, we’re more likely to be willing to ask of others, “How did you do it?”

Bottom line? The fear of failure keeps us from settling for “good enough.” And not settling is essential to success. When good enough is good enough, the best has already left the building.

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