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What Can Failure Possibly Teach Us?

I just finished reading a book titled A Colossal Failure of Common Sense: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers. Authors Lawrence G. McDonald and Patrick Robinson portrayed the CEO as one who was obsessed with growing and risk-taking and ignored the warning signs of a collapsing mortgage market. The company’s aging board of directors seemed happy with the aggressive growth and did not object to leveraging the company’s assets by a factor of 40. Lehman employed whip-smart analysts who were fully aware that the company was headed toward a brick wall. In essence, the company held the keys to survival and success – the knowledge to take corrective action and ensure survival. When Lehman Brothers declared the $660 billion bankruptcy, it became the biggest corporate failure in American history. More than 25,000 people lost their jobs.

Who is to blame?

When it comes to failure we tend to assign blame to the few at the top. We blame human emotions- greed, blind ambition, or hubris. The only problem is that Lehman was not the only domino that fell hard. As we zoom from the failure of one investment house back to the global economy, we know that the entire global financial system failed. What caused this immense failure that, in turn, caused a worldwide recession and how do we move beyond this experience?

We allowed banks to start gambling.

Some people say that it began when President Clinton signed into law the bill that repealed the Glass-Steagall Act. The 1933 law was written expressly for keeping a wall between commercial banks and investment houses. As a result of this change, investment banks got more creative with riskier financial instruments that created a string of successes – without visible penalties. Eager to extend their success, investment banks cranked out financial instruments that offered odds that made gambling houses look more conservative than the Vatican.

Success can be intoxicating.

A similar phenomenon can be observed in the field of engineering. Once innovation shows early successes, the designers begin to stretch the technology further and further. It is only a matter of time until a new crop of engineers, emboldened by the success, begins to gamble by neglecting fundamental principles.

The early space shuttles were over-engineered. Over time, the technology was pushed to its limit until a few tested quality principles were ignored, as in the case of the shedding tiles in the Shuttle Columbia’s tank insulation. Failure tends to bring a twinge of shame that can follow us into our dreams and inhibit our recovery.

Don’t place blame. Don’t dwell on shame. Get back in the game.

Barack Obama once addressed the subject of failure and recovery with this insight: “Making your mark on the world is hard. If it were easy, everybody would do it. But it's not. It takes patience, it takes commitment, and it comes with plenty of failure along the way. The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won't. It’s whether you let it harden or shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere.”

How come we tend to forget the basics when we try to extend success? Share your comments below.

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Very interesting post, Gerhard. I believe we all learn vastly more from failures than successes. I was having breakfast with Jill Konrath when I described my theory of "Last War Syndrome." All wars start using the techniques of the last war. Same thing in flight -- airline safety rules only happen after a tragic plane crash.

Could you also please add my blog, Fearless Competitor to your blogroll?

Thank you,
Jeff Ogden

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