Every leader has experienced failure in their life at one point or another. In fact, many would say that until you’ve had a colossal failure, you’ll never really experience victory. The world is obsessed with stories of comebacks, and it makes legends out of those who claw their way from the bottom back to stand on the pinnacle of success. However, for the person still stinging from defeat, the idea of victory seems laughable. In those moments it can be helpful to remember those who have stood where you are — blanching at the thought of moving forward, berating themselves for another mistake. Their stories give inspiration, hope and enough courage to keep you from throwing in the towel for good. Almost every industry has had at least one example of failure…can you find one that you relate to?
Years before he became a household name, Bill Gates was the creator of Traf-O-Data. This venture was designed to analyze traffic reports and provide information to engineers that would ease road congestion. While the idea appeals to some, the first demo of the product was abysmal: the machine didn’t work. Gates and his partner Paul Allen scrapped the idea and went on to create Microsoft’s first product a few years later. Allen credits their experience with Traf-O-Data as instrumental to getting Microsoft off the ground. Microsoft eventually became one of the world’s leading computer companies, while Gates became one of the richest men in the world.
Gates’ Lesson: If one idea fails, come up with another one. Gates’ first attempt at a software program may have flopped, but his next one was a success. Should you scrap one idea and start on a new one?
Widely recognized from his simple, no frills commercials, James Dyson doesn’t look like a failure. His low-key approach to selling his bag-less vacuum leaves out the 15 years of struggle before he managed to create a vacuum that worked. Over the course of 15 years, Dyson created 5,127 prototypes of his infamous vacuum — demonstrating a firm belief and commitment that few could comprehend. His determination paid off. Today Dyson is a billionaire, and his cyclonic separation vacuum is sold in over 50 countries around the world.
Dyson’s Lesson: “Each failure brought me closer to solving the problem.” Failing was merely a byproduct of inventing. He knew that eventually he would succeed, and he was determined to keep trying until he reached that point. How do you handle failure?
Virgin Cola, Virgin Vodka, Virgin Clothing, Virgin Vie. Chances are good you’ve never heard of any of them. They’re part of Branson’s list of failures, a list that includes ventures into almost every conceivable market. Branson began his entrepreneurial pursuits when he was 16, compelling him to drop out of high school to pursue a life of adventure. He has since gone on to build one of the world’s most recognizable brands, become a billionaire, and continued to take risks in business. He owns an airline, a space travel company, and an oceanic exploration company, making good on his dream of living an extraordinary life.
Branson’s Lesson: Failure is part of the journey. Learn from it and move on. Do you have an idea that you’re afraid to try because it might fail? Take the leap — you never know where you’re going to land.
One of the world’s most prolific authors, Stephen King has become famous for his mastery of telling horror stories. However, his reign of terror almost came to an early demise. After writing his first novel, Carrie, he submitted it 30 times before it was published. During the process of submission and rejection, King almost gave up his dream of writing. Ultimately, his novel was published, and it led to more success than even King could have imagined.
King’s Lesson: Look for someone who believes in you. In spite of the early rejection, King turned his novel into a success by continuing to search until he found an editor who believed in his writing. Don’t settle for rejection.
Failure is part of the road to success. In spite of early rejections, dismal failures, and ideas that never took off, these men found ways to succeed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The lesson for every leader can be found in failure. Failure isn’t fatal, but giving up is. Instead of seeing failure as the end, leaders who view it as an opportunity for growth and change often mark their failure as a turning point.