The Usefulness of Failure: Thoughts For Seasoned (And Aspiring) CEOs

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

- Winston Churchill

No executive is successful in everything, but CEOs tend to beat themselves up for any and all failures.

Superhuman expectations come with the position. However, it is best to acknowledge and even relish failures. Only then can an executive begin to eradicate them.

Think of your life. Where are your failures? In your relationships? Personal fitness? Parenting? Getting buy-in for your vision? Persuading colleagues to back you? Avoiding tough conversations?

Negative patterns can always be picked out. And these patterns often triumph over our efforts to correct ineffective or destructive behaviours. As we know, those efforts can sometimes make things even worse.

Some industries, such as self-help, fitness and diet, are sustained through failure. Ultimately, they thrive on breaking old patterns and establishing new ones.

We can see useless old patterns in personal and family matters, government interventions and executive team meetings. Why is this?

People repeat mistakes for the profound and yet simple reason that we do not question our ‘inner narrative’.

Our inner narrative is the sum of the stories we tell ourselves.  Many of the stories were created, unbeknown to us, in our early life.  They give us deeply personal and unquestioned assumptions.  They determine how we interpret events today and respond to them. 

These events can be large or small, significant or seemingly routine, but each matters.

Our ‘inner narrative’ runs on autopilot, programming our conscious thoughts and everyday behaviours.

The result is what psychologists call schemas. In simple terms; mind maps of how we see the world, its objects, its inhabitants and ourselves.

Schemas inform us all day long. They tell what everyday objects are; what to make of situations; how to judge people and perform in various roles.

When we have created or accepted a schema, we fight hard to sustain it, perhaps by force-fitting observations that do not comply with the schema. Sometimes we just ignore anything that doesn’t square with our thinking.

Many of these schemas, possibly most, are constructed and indexed in our unconscious mind as stories. And these stories are applied as filters to current events and used to envisage the future.

Our schemas often work well enough, which is a good thing because we do not have the time to question our every assumptions and all the stories we hold dear.

Refracting life through these stories can lead us down positive paths. In such cases, we clearly have a healthy inner narrative directing us.

However, we can all contrive pessimistic stories. Our schema can then programme us to behave on that story’s miserable and unhelpful subtext; such as ‘relationships always sour’ or ‘office politics is constant’.

Without pause for thought we can live into these assumptions, and our behaviour can make them a self-fulfilling prophecy. Then we are caught in what world-renowned psychologist Timothy Wilson calls a 'pessimism cycle'.

The tell-tale thought which our inner narrative (which may or may not be front-of-mind) throws up is usually this one: "No matter what I do, I can't resolve the issue".


In his excellent book, Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, Wilson writes:-

"... people develop pessimistic stories and get caught in self-defeating thinking cycles, whereby they assume the worst and, as a result, cope poorly. The question then becomes how to help people revise their negative stories.”

The good news is that we can identify and change our inner narrative. We can edit our negative stories. We need to delve into the subconscious to tease the stories out. However, it’s surprisingly straightforward, according to Wilson.

Story Editing comprises three elements:

The first is 'story prompting'.  Here a coach suggests how personal stories may be viewed in a different way. The aim is to help a person make sense of an event or events that have shaped his/her thinking and led to negative and self-defeating cycles of behaviour.

The second is changing an element or elements of our behaviour, and thus changing our narrative. Wilson calls this the 'do good, be good' approach. For an obvious, simple example: if you act in a kindly way (by donating time to a charity for example), you will begin to see yourself as a kindly person or someone more likely to help others. And you will live into that assumption – that schema, that story of you.

The third concerns the deeply buried nature of personal stories. These can be hard to access and articulate, of course. However, writing exercises can help you realise what may be holding you back. The big breakthrough here was made back in the 1980s by James Pennebaker. He developed ‘expressive writing’ which has proven invaluable to people, especially people too busy to attend therapy or wary of investing much in psychotherapeutic processes.

Based upon science rather than fad and hype, story editing has been proven to lead to lasting positive change.

Related to this is the elusive desire among leaders to be 'authentic'. Socrates, Plato and many Classical Greeks put great store by the principle, "Know Thyself."

Again, this means getting inside your own head to thumb through the schemas. It is a process which yields surprises.

To start, you may ask yourself these questions:-

1.    What early-life experiences made the greatest impression upon you?

        1.1   Which people shaped your early life?

2.    Do you consider yourself to be self-aware?

        2.1    What techniques do you use to gauge and hone your self-awareness?

        2.2    At what times do you experience the 'real you'?

3.    What values do you hold most deeply?

        3.1    How did these values originate?

        3.2    What experiences and which people shaped these values?

        3.3    Have these values changed over the years, and if so why?

        3.4    How do your values influence your actions?

4.    What motivates you?

        4.1    How have your experiences shaped these motivations?

        4.2    What current factors stimulate and motivate you?

        4.3    How do you balance these internal and external motivating factors?

5.    Are you able to be the same person in all aspects of your life?

        5.1    Do you feel the need to 'act' in any of your life roles?

        5.2    If so, why and what's holding you back?

6.    What does being authentic mean to you?

        6.1    Are you more or less effective as a leader when you are 'being yourself'?

        6.2    Have you experienced a downside from being authentic?

        6.3   Do you feel uncomfortable being authentic?

7.    What can you do each day to become a more authentic leader?

The above questions are worth tackling, even just light-heartedly. They often uncover a schema which bedevils strong characters and successful men, holding them back from further and more rounded success. This is the schema which informs the person that ‘I cannot change my behaviour’.

A quick rummage through your schemas will reveal that you have changed your thoughts and behaviours many times. You will view past beliefs and behaviours with bemusement. Of course you can and will alter your schemas again. And that is something to embrace…


Wilson, T (2013), Redirect: Changing the stories we live by; Publisher, Penguin

James Pennebaker’s writing exercises – click here for more information (opens new window)

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