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Failure has its pluses

Watching those valiant teams, the New England Patriots and my beloved Philadelphia Eagles, battle it out on Super Bowl Sunday from the stands of Alltel Stadium in Jacksonville, Fla., I was reminded of the ephemeral quality of success and how narrowly it is often defined.

In professional sports, and certainly the National Football League, success is defined in the following terms: If you win, you are a success. If you lose, you are a failure.

Spectacular plays and outstanding athleticism are accidental byproducts of the equation. To the victors, go all the spoils.

In the sports and entertainment business, such glory can be deceiving. Not enough is made of the challenges in managing success — or at least, handling it gracefully.

Failure invites introspection, humility and self-awareness. Success can spawn arrogance and the appearance of omnipotence. It also can perpetuate an erroneous sense of entitlement.

Entertainment industry executives often have more difficulty in dealing with business success than failure. Part of their problem might be that there are fewer role models for winning than for losing.

Someone whose opinion I enormously respect once told me she most wished for their children “that they experience failure early.” This wasn’t a sadistic impulse on her part. It was a clear-headed view of how much more effectively and with greater resiliency young people can usually handle a reversal and hopefully learn from it. It increases the chances that they will avoid becoming insufferable know-it-alls. More importantly, it will help them develop the emotional calluses they’ll need to survive future indignities. This loving mother raised a great group of well-adjusted kids, including two who are soaring successes in the entertainment industry.

From a recruiter’s perspective, those who have never experienced a business failure are high-risk candidates. They are overdue for a problem. The prospective employer must have confidence that a proposed executive has absorbed and handled previous failures and disappointments. Obviously, if one continues to make the same mistakes, the message is clear.

Employers have varying levels of tolerance for failure. The most benign, to my knowledge, was the Japanese firm where a young executive made a mistake that cost the company a $10 million account. When the executive offered to resign, his boss declined, saying, “You can’t leave the company; I have a $10 million investment in you.”

Other companies are not so benevolent — or farsighted. Some have a one-strike-and-you’re-out ethic. Those employers believe that failure breeds failure, and it’s not worth the time and money to develop an employee.

Such intolerance of failure can actually hasten it. If well-considered mistakes are unacceptable, risk and innovation will be avoided. People will be so concerned about hanging on to their seats that they’ll never attempt to achieve greatness. There is one thing worse than a bad employee: a mediocre one. Bad ones and good ones are easily identified and dealt with. Mediocre ones linger.

If success is defined as the absence of failure, it is a hollow victory. Executives, like filmmakers, should be judged on their best work, not their worst. After all, anybody can make a bad movie. But how many can make a great movie?

The old adage “Success has many parents but failure is an orphan” is certainly true of Hollywood, where people get triple hernias taking bows for projects that they had nothing to do with.

What’s needed is a working environment that recognizes the value of failure in achieving success.

Unger is a leading exec recruiter. At various times, he led the media and entertainment practices of the world’s three largest executive search firms. He can be reached at sa.unger@verizon.net.

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