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I have a confession to make. I’ve never told anyone because it sounds utterly crazy, but in any team, organization, or business I lead, my first priority is to cultivate a culture of failure. Yes, failure. Failure is the key that unlocks hidden potential we didn’t even know we had. Failure is the conduit through which a strong current of brilliance and humanity flows. Failure is the wide-open doorway to success that everyone should want to step through, yet no one does. Avoid failure at your own peril.
We’ve all been programmed to think about failure in negative terms. Not just by our parents or by contemporary society, but through hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary trial and error. After all, before the dawn of civilization, failure meant being caught between the teeth of a tiger. But we no longer live with that persistent threat, yet we still live with that persistent fear. Society has begun to turn the corner on failure on an individual level, however. People post their resume of failures. Podcasts of people who fail are all the rage. Whether it’s to make ourselves feel better, or to learn how to be resilient, we have grown to embrace failure for our own individual benefit. But what happens when we apply our new acceptance of failure to organizational leadership?
Next time you eat at a restaurant, study your server. Are they nervous? Do they seem like they know what they’re talking about? Do they speak with confidence? Do they care? Then, study their coworkers. What is the culture like? Are they loose or tense? Do they seem like they want to be there? These are the types of intangibles I studied as I prepared to run a restaurant. The best restaurants are the ones that strike a perfect balance between fun and professionalism. And it was the first priority I set for my restaurant before we first opened to the public, with failure as the magic ingredient.
As we all know, it’s hard to please college-age kids. It’s hard to keep their attention for five minutes, let alone get them to do something they wouldn’t normally want to do—work. Try it with 80 college students at their part-time job and forget it. But something peculiar and exciting happened when my vision for a culture of failure met their expectations for the job. When they learned that failure was not only okay, but encouraged, their entire view of “work” was obliterated. I know what fear of failure can do to people—it tenses them up, restricts flow of thinking and action, and invites more mistakes. And when I turned failure on its head for these kids, with the only provision being that they don’t make the same mistake thrice, it gave them more time to breathe, more room to learn, and more trust in themselves and in me. They still made their fair share of mistakes, but they learned quicker and genuinely fell in love with their job.
I had 450 applications to sort through on interview day. Less than a third of those were even considered. A job at my restaurant was in high demand from the very start. But as the new hires became familiar with the job, they began to talk about it with their friends. Word spread through the campus like wildfire. I ended up receiving 500+ applications (two full shoeboxes) after the hiring process was finished. Through a simple paradigm shift, I had built a culture that everyone wanted to be a part of, that rivals admired, that customers marveled at. Employees would tell me that coming to work was the best part of their day. In the first six months of the brand-new restaurant, we surpassed $1 million in revenue (and if you’ve ever been involved on the business side of hospitality, you know how hard it is to build momentum in a new location of a locally owned restaurant.) We didn’t do much advertising, and not many people on a college campus have money. We did it through building a contagious culture that kept employees and customers coming back for more. It was the culture of failure—the trickle-down theory of leadership—the simple realization that when you treat your team like humans, not robots, amazing things begin to happen in the most unlikely of ways.
So, how do you become a motivating and trusted leader? Fail. And fail again. Invite failure into your life and accept it in your organization. If it’s not a life-or-death situation, failure is a humbling learning opportunity. Failure is a force of nature beyond our wildest understanding. Like how the lava flowing from volcanoes creates a beautiful tropical island where there was none, failure creates opportunities for success where there were none.
Cultivate a culture of failure. You’ll be pleasantly surprised with the results.
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