In our success-driven culture, the words setback and disappointment have almost become taboo. However, what needs to be realized is that behind almost every business success is a story of hard work, perseverance and combatted adversity.
American military man Lieutenant Colonel George Custer once said, “It’s not how many times you get knocked down that count, it’s how many times you get back up.” While Custer appreciated the delicate balance between success and failure, many of us have forgotten that, just like success, regression or setbacks are also a natural part of life and, if you will, the natural cycle of living in the world.
The fact is that if you strike up a conversation with a business leader or executive and ask them, most of them will tell you that some of their greatest lessons didn’t arise from success. Instead, they learned through failure and setback and moments that forced them back to the drawing board to re-think and re-focus.
However, like another adage, “hindsight is 20/20”, learning from a setback is often far easier said than done because it typically must happen while you are still coping and dealing with the fallout of the failure itself.
As a leader, a setback can be particularly painful. The consequences might be far-reaching, touching many people, with potentially serious consequences. A leader is also a visible figurehead who the rest of the organization looks to and sometimes expects to be held accountable for failure.
Even today’s most successful companies have faced what many viewed as insurmountable setbacks. However, these businesses and their leaders were able to overcome and become more focused and stronger.
Case in point: Steve Jobs the founder, creator and visionary of Apple, who flirted with oblivion in his early days. Before Apple became a household name, the company and its founder suffered 12 years of losses. Undeterred, Jobs returned to the drawing board time and time again until 1997 when Apple began its ascent to being on of the world’s most valuable companies.
Similarly, James Dyson, the inventor of the Dyson vacuum, built more than 5,000 prototypes before finding success with prototype 5127.
“There are countless times an inventor can give up on an idea. By 2,627, my wife and I were really counting our pennies,” says Dyson. “By 3,727, my wife was giving art lessons for some extra cash. These were tough times, but each failure brought me closer to solving the problem.”
With that said, sometimes it doesn’t make sense to keep going forward like Jobs and Dyson. In these instances, it’s important to get out and regroup quickly. This is something Canadian mining executive Ian Telfer knows first-hand. Telfer, who serves as the Chairman of Goldcorp Inc., has spent the last 30 years establishing and growing successful mining firms.
On the heels of a weak gold market in 1999, Telfer decided to get involved with the then very hot dotcom tech market.
Telfer, whose career had almost exclusively been in the mining industry, was confronted with the harsh reality of a tech market that would soon fall apart with the dot com bubble. The timing wasn’t right, and add to that, Telfer’s knowledge base and experience was centered around the resource market, a stark contrast from the world of technology.
“It was definitely a learning experience,” said Ian Telfer. “But, setbacks are great because they are humbling and informative, my greatest lessons have come out of adversity.”
Telfer’s dotcom business Itemus became defunct in 2001, just as the gold market was regaining traction, and Telfer returned to what he knew: the mining business. This time, however, he had even more experience to draw on.
“We tend take failure personally and we shouldn’t.” Telfer explained. “Instead, we need to view it as feedback or a dose of medicine. It may be hard to swallow, but in the end, it makes us stronger.”