In both life and leadership, failure is a given. It’s something we need to always be prepared for, because even our best-laid plans can go awry. Therefore, your success as a leader is often defined not by your ability to avoid failure, but by your ability to embrace it, learn from it and seize the opportunities it brings.
Join us as we hear from rock and alpine guide Jason Martin on how his experiences on the mountain can teach us a thing or two about preparing for failure and handling it well when it inevitably comes our way.
Jason Martin (00:00)
I think it’s arrogant to walk into any climb and believe it’s going to just be fine. Even like as a guide if you’ve done it dozens of times.
Daniel Harkavy (00:09)
That’s Jason Martin, executive director at the American Alpine Institute. Jason is a certified ROC and Alpine guide who’s been guiding professionally for nearly 20 years and in his line of work the possibility of failure is always present.
Jason Martin (00:25)
I had a situation in 2007 it was in December and I had two guys and they were coming out to Las Vegas. I lived there at the time and it was guiding in red rock Canyon just outside the city and their flight was delayed and they didn’t show up until like two 30 in the afternoon. They ended up in this situation where I was really rushed because it was going to get dark at four 30 in the park closes at five and so he moved a rope over from one acre to the other and rappelled down and somehow it offset the rope and I slid off the end of the rope and fell about six feet, landed flat on my and fractured my pelvis. Actually, and so I had to like still mitigate those guys. I called 911 and then had those guys get picked up and then handed them off to another guide for the next day. Got hauled in a helicopter from the base of the crag over to the road ambulance took me to town, found out I fractured my pelvis. That was not awesome.
Daniel Harkavy (01:21)
Luckily for Jason, he was able to heal and recover without any surgery. But a story like this is a stark reminder to any fellow climber that there’s always a risk of falling. And while for us as leaders, the physical stakes may not nearly be as high as they are. For someone like Jason, the lesson still applies in leadership. There’s always the potential for failure. Failure is just part of being a leader. Failure is a part of living. And if you haven’t found that out by now, my guesses that you’re going to find it out before too long. And because failure is an essential part of the leadership journey, it’s not the avoidance of failure that sets the great leaders apart from everybody else. It’s how they prepare for failure. And then respond to it all with the right mindset. That’s what distinguishes them. Hi, I’m Daniel Harkavy and this is the building champions podcast. Each episode is going to highlight key leadership insights as well as some interesting stories to help you to better lead yourself, your team and your organization. This episode’s all about failure and how the best leaders are prepared for failure when it inevitably comes their way before anything else takes place. The very first thing Jason does when planning a climb is to find the right route for the client.
Jason Martin (02:42)
In Las Vegas there’s a route called Epinephrine. It’s 20 pitches or 20 rope planks. It’s chimneys and off widths. Off widths are cracks that are too wide for your hands. It’s not the type of stuff you can train for in a gym. People see on our website Epinephrine and they want to do it. It’s the thing to do and they’ve climbed outside twice, but for most people they’re going to need a substantial amount of multi pitch climbing, both guided, maybe personal before they’re able to effectively climb that route. And because I know the route a and I know the route well and I’ve climbed it thousands of times, it’s really easy to look at somebody’s resume and say like, Oh, that’s not quite right for you right now. Let’s take a look at this other thing. It’s just as amazing. It’s just as cool. It doesn’t maybe have the name recognition of Epinephrine, but it’s pretty cool and you’re going to have a really good day and you’re going to be successful and you know, we’re not going to climb halfway up and then have to repel off because you’re, you’re completely burned out.
Daniel Harkavy (03:48)
Knowing how to set appropriate goals is a key skill for leaders and it’s one that can mitigate many instances of failure before you even get started on the task at hand. An effective goal setting is as much of an art as it is a science. You’re always looking to, to ride that line between challenging yourself or your team, but not pushing so hard and so far that you’re only setting up everybody for disappointment. Just like with Jason’s clients, it can be easy to look at what other leaders or organizations are doing and then to feel the pressure to follow their lead. Maybe company a is hitting a lofty financial goal this year or leader B is pushing hard on a certain strategy and executing really well and you feel like you need to do the same simply because that’s what other people are doing and you fear falling behind and instances like these we have to remember to focus our attention back on ourselves, our team, our business because what works for others won’t always work for us. You and your team need to have a clear vision of why you do what you do and what it is that you want to accomplish together. A clear vision, clear strategies, clear goals for your business and it needs to be unique for you, but even when we have healthy, challenging, appropriate goals in place, the opportunity for difficulty and failure is always present both in the things we can control and the things we can’t. This is a reality Alpine guides like Jason have to live with every day.
Jason Martin (05:25)
The reality is that in a natural environment, things don’t always work out. We have two types of hazards in the mountains. We have subjective hazard and objective hazard, subjective hazard or the hazards we bring into the mountains. If I’m not fit enough, if I didn’t bring the right gear, those types of things. Objective hazards or hazards that are always there, have phalanges, crevasses, rockfall. If we have the right training, for example, which is a subjective thing, then we can manage those objective hazards at some level.
Daniel Harkavy (05:56)
For businesses, the concept of a pre-mortem operates much like Jason’s assessments of hazards prior to climbing a mountain. A pre-mortem is where you think about what failure would look like. You identify what would the causes be, and then you create the tactics or strategies to minimize the risk of falling. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to sit down, serve it in a landscape, determine the risks and the potential areas where you and your team could get tripped up while trying to achieve your goal and just like how Jason looks for both the objective hazards that are always on the mountain and the subject of hazards, climbers bring with them to the mountain. There will be some things that are outside of your control and some things that are within your control, whether it’s a downturn in the market or a political shift that has a direct impact on your business.
There’s usually little you can do about these circumstances. While good leaders need to be aware of these circumstances and how to adjust their plans accordingly. Many times the battle is won or lost based upon how well you manage those things that are within your control. For Jason, one subjective thing he has control over as a guide is how well trained and equipped his clients are before they start climbing.
Jason Martin (07:18)
They have to have the appropriate gear for the route that has been selected and they have to have the appropriate technical skills. For the route that has been selected in some programs, we’re going to teach those skills. Even, you know, having the appropriate gear might be part of that process for them to be able to climb the mountain. We’re going to sit down and say like, Hey, you need a hard shell jacket and hard shell pants. You need this layer and that layer. That’s part of the process. To get people wearing the right things with the right type of, you need X number of carabiners, you need this type of ice tool. And this type of crampon gear is something we constantly think about. So that’s going to happen before we even go out the door.
Daniel Harkavy (08:00)
Likewise, in leadership, much of what’s in our control when setting out to achieve goals are the tools, the resources and the training we choose to utilize to help us to reach the peak. Are you looking to increase your market share in your region this year? Then you can make sure that your marketing team has the financial resources they need to get your message out to more people, or that your sales team is supported and clear on the company’s mission and products so they can effectively engage with their potential customers.
Or maybe you have a personal goal and you’re gunning for a new role, a new position in the firm that’s going to be opening up in the months ahead. Are you committed to reading and learning the new skills that the new position will require of you? Are you taking the time to network and make meaningful connections with the right people in your organization? Have you considered getting this outside insight from a coach who can help you to see what you need to see in order for you to be the leader that you can be, no matter what your goal is either for or your team. There are always specific tools and resources that will be required in order for you to climb that mountain. As a leader, it’s up to you to prepare, to do your research and to work hard to make sure that the right resources are in place as you begin that climb because without them, your chances for failure are that much greater.
So you’ve done your research, you’ve surveyed the landscape, you’ve got clarity around the plans in place, still are plans can fail and this is where mindset becomes an absolutely indispensable asset for every leader when failure hits, it’s how you frame that failure that will determine whether it’s beneficial or whether it holds you back and there are a few key traits leaders can adopt to help with this reframing process. First, when experiencing failure as a team, we need to be aware that it can sometimes bring out the worst in us and if we don’t know how to handle it in a healthy way, it can make a bad situation even worse. This is something Jason has to deal with. If a climb doesn’t go the way he or his clients expected,
Jason Martin (10:06)
Mountain climbing is a team effort and something could happen to any one of us at any time. It could always be me that has to turn around and then if there’s somebody else who causes me to have to turn around, we can hold some kind of a grudge against that person. They didn’t want to twist their ankle in the last thousand feet. They didn’t intend to do that. They didn’t want to get sick or something like that or just run out of gas. There’s a level of gentleness in the process and I think that approaching it with this level of understanding that we all come to this together, we need each other to climb the mountain. We need each other to get up there and to get back and if all goes well, we’ll make it. There’s something really kind of beautiful about that, about the understanding that using each other and depending on each other is the way that we’ll be successful.
Daniel Harkavy (11:03)
When experiencing failure as a team, we need to have the mindset of wanting to be gentle, empathetic, and assuming our team members best intentions. There is still absolutely the need for accountability, but when failure causes us to possibly point fingers and seek to place blame, it evaporates the trust and the connection that will be essential as we look to regroup and climb on towards accomplishing our goal. And finally, the thing that really matters most for us as leaders with failure is that we need to model and help our teammates to reframe failure as something that teaches us. It’s an opportunity.
Jason Martin (11:44)
And I think that that’s where mountain climbing and business come together in, in the most perfect of metaphors. We’re constantly learning through our failure. I think it’s okay to let people know that it’s not just okay for them to fail, but it’s okay for you to fail and it’s okay for you to fail in front of them because you’re a human and it’s okay to say like, look, this isn’t going to work out because of this other thing. And for them to accept that.
Daniel Harkavy (12:13)
When you as a leader normalize failure, you help your peers in your team members see that failure as a healthy part of growing learning and doing good work. It’s a reminder to yourself and to others that success isn’t about avoiding failure. Truly successful people appreciate and understand that failure is a part of the process. Something that you prepare for. Go through and learn from when you live in lead with this mindset. You can inspire others and open them up to trying new ideas, to innovating and to setting new goals that maybe didn’t seem quite as possible before. And ultimately this is one of our greatest responsibilities as leaders. And coming up, one of our executive coaches will sit down and share with you how you can start shifting your mindset and begin seeing failure in a whole new light.
Todd Mosetter (13:06)
My name is Todd Mosetter, and I work in the content department here at Building Champions, and I’m excited to sit down with my colleague, friend and office neighbor executive coach, Dan Breene. Dan, thanks for joining us today.
Dan Breene (13:16)
Delighted to be with you today, Todd.
Todd Mosetter (13:18)
So first question is going to be an obvious one. This topic is about falling and failure. I assume you’ve never had an experience with falling or failure.
Dan Breene (13:27)
I haven’t since eight o’clock this morning. Previously, many examples.
Todd Mosetter (13:31)
You have such a background before you became a coach at building champions, we like to call it real world experience. Can you think of an example that you led a team or a part of a company that you failed and it actually turned out to be a really good thing?
Dan Breene (13:46)
One of the biggest things in failure to me is the recognition that occasionally you’re going to fail and it isn’t. The failure itself that defines you. It’s what you do to recover from it and the idea of fail fast, learn, adapt and do it again makes a huge, huge difference. A number of years ago when I was CEO of a fleet auto and truck leasing company that GE Capitol had bought, we had a significant issue with the billing system. We didn’t know when we pushed the button each month if we’re going to actually be able to bill our clients for their monthly invoice and since that was our sole source of revenue, we thought that was fairly serious. We brought in our corporate auditors to help us understand what was going on. They did an audit example. They did a complete audit for us and determine that we had some significant issues that had failed and our organization rather than worry about who was going to get the blame for that. My approach was to take that, go back and get the resources and the support we needed to completely redo the billing system. So on the one hand we failed our audit. On the other hand, we revamped the billing system and turned it into a business that grew over the next few years by three or 400%
Todd Mosetter (15:00)
That’s a great example, Dan. I think in the interview with Jason, we didn’t get a chance to touch on it, but I asked him a question about are you more of a journey guy or a destination guy? And I think failure can be a similar kind of a mindset, right? That if you look at it like the acute event, then you probably did fail or pass. But if you look at it as the journey is always about excellence, about improving, about finding ways to innovate better serve your customers well then failure isn’t a destination anymore. It’s just part of the journey.
Dan Breene (15:29)
No, no. The other thing that I’ve always tried to keep in mind, general Colin Powell years ago came up with his 13 rules and one of the ones I thought was really, really critical, and I use this with my clients quite often, is that avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it. You have to be absolutely clear that if you fail, it isn’t because you were unworthy. You are a bad person. You’re not competent. It was that a variety of situations existed that meant you didn’t succeed to accomplish something. You said you were going to succeed. The clients that have the biggest difficulty with this are the ones that take it personally. I have failed. I’m not good at my job while I keep my job while I get fired. Those are the people. Tune failure is a very defining event. The goal with failure is to understand this didn’t work well. Edison said that all he was doing was failing, failing, and failing hundreds or thousands of times until he ultimately succeeded. That’s the mindset you need to come back from a failure or a fall.
Todd Mosetter (16:36)
Yeah, I love that. I mean, if you’re not shooting for big stuff and trying stuff you’ve never done before, I mean if you’ve never failed, you probably haven’t set your goals high enough. Can you talk a little bit about that healthy tension between setting a goal that obviously needs and there’s revenue implications? There’s, there’s all stuff tied to it, but also pushing the team far enough that they’re trying things, knowing that all of them won’t work, but if you never stretch yourself, you’re probably never going to accomplish something great.
Dan Breene (17:03)
Precisely. I’m a big believer in stretch goals. If you create a comfort level, you will get the comfort level. You will not get people that will go beyond that to really push to accomplish great things, but you can’t set the goals so far ahead that they feel hopeless and a critical issue that I’ve seen come up more than once is that you have to celebrate the wins along the way. You can’t move your goalposts and tell that goal is scored. The most destructive behavior I’ve seen is a leader who sets a stretch goal and before the team makes it changes the goal to make it an even further stretch goal. All that does is demoralize the team and tell them, well, wait a minute, I can’t ever win in this process. So the critical part is making sure that you create a series of accomplishments that you can call wins.
You can celebrate as wins or if are failures, you can understand why they’re a failure, determine why they failed and move forward. But the key is not blaming. The key is keeping your eye on that desired end result. What is it we want to accomplish and if we didn’t make it this time, what do we do differently to get us closer to the next time? What happens if it doesn’t work out quite the way we thought? How will we adapt? How will we move forward to get to our ultimate goal? That’s the critical part of that process.
Todd Mosetter (18:42)
Agree completely, Dan. One of the premises behind this episode is helping listeners prepare to fall, right? That knowing that if we are aware of the risks, we’re aware of things that could happen, we can prepare for them. So we’d love to dive in. When you work with clients and you’re helping them develop contingency plans, strategies to make sure they’re addressing the right things, where have you seen clients have great success?
Dan Breene (19:06)
It’s important to recognize current reality when you’re implementing your business plan or your initiative, whatever it happens to be. If you allow yourself to not see with absolute clarity what the current reality is, you’ll start to begin to see things the way you want them to be, not the way they are, and that is a hugely difficult trap to avoid for a lot of people. You want to make sure that you’re setting milestones along the way to say, if we have reached this point and we are successful, stop, evaluate for a moment, determine what do we need to go to get to the next one, the next one, the next one. If you do that consistently, then you’re going to reach your ultimate goal. It is absolutely deadly to let what you want to have happen. Get in the way of what’s actually taking place on the ground.
Todd Mosetter (19:57)
There’s great wisdom there. If we were to continue the hiking analogy, right? That’d be like base camps, right? And you stop, you assess your progress. How’s everybody feeling? Check our supplies. Are we good? Let’s keep going. All right. If we’re not, let’s adjust. Right? How’s the weather doing? That’s a good segue, I think to this idea of object IV in the subjective hazards, right? I loved that example that Jason gave, right? So we classified those object of hazards as things that were on the mountain that were outside of our control, right? The climate, the weather, some circumstances. When you think about preparing to fall, then you have a client and he’s going through this process. How? How can you help him really navigate those objective risks, right? Things in the environment that are outside of their control, but good leaders need to be aware of them.
Dan Breene (20:40)
Again, it goes back a little bit to the current reality, but it also goes back to the depth of analysis you’re going to make or the current reality. Don’t assume away something that you don’t think you fully understand. Don’t assume away a risk by saying, Oh, that isn’t really gonna affect me because of X, Y, or Z. Something completely unusual could occur that could ever huge impact on whether or not we’re going to succeed. Don’t ignore it because you can’t quantify completely. The very nature of the objective risk is that we can’t absolutely quantify it. It is outside of our control. Look at it, analyze it, come up with a probability of occurrence and come up with some contingencies. What if interest rates go up by four percentage points? What if a competitor takes an action that’s going to directly and negatively impact my product launch? What if a supplier can’t provide the materials that I need? What if a new technology comes along that makes what I’m trying to do either more difficult or obsolete? If you’re not thinking about those things and building them into your plan, the odds are they’re going to end up creating huge, huge complications for you and triggering a failure.
Todd Mosetter (21:55)
That’s great insight. I think one thought to, to add to that would be if you think about that analysis, and this probably changes based on your industry and your role, but being aware of the trends as well, which takes an investment of time, right? What are you reading? What are you looking at? Who are you talking to? You need as a leader, I think to be disciplined to make sure that you’re serving the landscape as you said, and not just assuming it, right? It needs to be a priority. Whether it’s economic, legislative, you know, social technology. I think you gave some great examples. Leaders can’t afford to put their head in the sand. So we’ve talked a little bit about those things that are outside of our control. When we think about preparing to fall and those things that are inside of our control, whether it’s training, whether it’s people, whether it’s resource, where have you seen clients get tripped up in terms of not being prepared to control the things that they actually do have control over.
Dan Breene (22:50)
In coaching at Building Champions, we talk a lot about the things we can control. The things we have no control over and the things we influence. One of the biggest problems that a number of our clients wrestle with is that clarity between what do I control, what do I have no control over, and in many cases clients will accept behaviors that are substandard and will ultimately cause them to run into difficulties if not failure. A friend of mine built a very successful restaurant business, eventually had about 48 restaurants and we were talking over a drink a number of years ago and I said, what are, what are some of the secrets of success in the restaurant business? He said, there are three, the restaurant business is about ounces and seconds, portion control, speed of service, and he said the third one is a subtle one, but it’s really important.
Something left in the wrong place long enough becomes the right place. So if you allow your people to do something that is substandard, that is incorrect for long enough, it becomes the accepted behavior and everybody will continue to do that. That’s one of the things that I really emphasize with my clients to people know what finished looks like for their jobs. Are they focusing on the details or have you allowed, have you tolerated the behavior that allows them to lose focus and produce substandard results and leaders fall under that trap constantly. Oh, that’s it. That’s too hard to change. You’re the leader. You’re ridiculously in charge. You’re the one that needs to own that.
Todd Mosetter (24:31)
Yeah. I love that. That quote from Henry cloud, right? You are ridiculously in charge. I think too often we probably, and you touched on this earlier, right? Think we don’t have control over things that we actually do and what a good lesson is that for leaders to learn to understand that difference.
Dan Breene (24:48)
To follow up on that a little bit more, what leaders need to understand is it is up to them to set the expectations for success for their organization. If you’re not doing that, you are setting up the organization for substandard performance and perhaps failure. And I often hear leaders say, well, I don’t want to be that jerk that’s just pounding on people and making their lives miserable and my response is always the same. That’s not what you’re doing. What you’re doing is helping them be successful. You’re not there to make their life difficult. You’re helping them focus to do the things that make them more efficient, to give them ultimately a better quality of work life balance. If you’re not doing that, you’re asking them to take on your job and then you’re limiting the fact that they’re not doing your job very well.
Todd Mosetter (25:38)
We could have a whole episode on this, but the concept that comes to mind that I’ve had conversations with some, some colleagues and clients in the past couple of weeks is there’s a huge difference between being demanding and being demeaning and that line can be so easily crossed when we have high standards and we’re encouraging people and we’re challenging them to do more and to grow. You can do that in a very supportive way, right? To your point, you want what’s best for them, for the organization, for the client. You can have high standards and be demanding. It’s when you cross that line that it becomes demeaning, that it has a negative effect on your leadership and those around you.
Dan Breene (26:14)
Precisely. A distinction I like to make is focus on behaviors. Behaviors are generally objective and measurable. Don’t focus on personality or attitude. I don’t know what an attitude is. I don’t know how much it weighs. I don’t know if it’s bigger than a bread box. I don’t know what color it is, so if I tell somebody, I think you’ve got a lousy attitude and you failed, I’ve given them no meaningful information, but I’ve attacked them because their perception of attitude of mine are going to be completely different. If I talked to them about specific behaviors that we need to sharpen and we need to modify to be more successful in the future, I can be demanding and to your point, not demeaning. The minute you get into personal attacks or your language is so imprecise, it can be perceived as a personal attack. You’ve lost that, that distinction and you’re not going to be successful.
Todd Mosetter (27:08)
I think that’s a great distinction and a great tip to add to it, to help people think through. And Dan, I think it provides a great transition before we finish up is we’ve talked a lot about preparing to fall from a performance perspective, if you will, write goals, outcomes, tasks. One of our focuses here at Building Champions is really helping leaders understand the inner game, right? The leadership side of being a good leader. When we talk about preparing to fail, we’re going to fail as leaders sometimes it’s not just going to be that we missed a goal, it’s that we’re going to miss an expectation. We’re going to treat someone maybe unfairly or not the right way. We’re going to fail as people and as leaders. Can you think of any advice or practical tips you can give when a leader has a leadership failure, they’ve missed the mark. What can they do to make it right?
Dan Breene (28:01)
The most important thing is own it. Be transparent. Don’t beat yourself up unnecessarily, but explain what your decision was that it didn’t work out. And here’s what we’re going to do to move on from here. To get that ultimate success. People want to know their leader can be vulnerable, but is still a leading. It’s a critical distinction. You have to still be seen as the leader. People want to have confidence in you. They’re buying into your leadership, but letting them know that perhaps I didn’t, this wasn’t my finest hour, I didn’t make the best call here and here’s what I’ve learned from it and here’s how we’re going to move forward from that. You are not only showing a human side to your leadership, but you are implicitly giving them permission to fail within boundaries and that’s a huge gift to your team to have them say, the boss acknowledged it. I can take that risk if the boss is absolutely unwilling to ever admit failure, he is putting a huge barrier in the face of each of his individual managers to ever take a risk because they’re going to be petrified. Well, the boss won’t acknowledge that.
Todd Mosetter (29:17)
I love that. That’s probably a fantastic closing point, that if you truly want to prepare to fail as a business and as a leader, then you need to be prepared to own it, right? You need to be prepared to know how you’re going to handle it, how you’re going to communicate it, and how you’re gonna model it. Because I think you started in a great spot. Failure doesn’t often define who we are, what we do after the failure really defines who we are. Exactly. Dan, thanks for your time. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us. Listeners. As always, building champions.com/podcast you can get transcripts from the whole episode as well as any resources or tools we discussed. And thanks for investing your time with us today.
Daniel Harkavy (30:00)
Thanks much to our guest, Jason Martin for his wonderful insights into failure from the perspective of a mountain climbing guide. And I want to recommend two books that will help to illuminate this topic even more. So, first off is Mindset by Dr Carolyn Dweck. And the second is Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke. If you’re looking to go deeper, those are two fantastic resources and thank you for taking time to listen and learn with us. I hope you took away something valuable from this episode that will produce fruit in your leadership.
As a reminder, you can listen to other episodes and access relevant tools by visiting building champions.com forward slash podcast and we’d love it if you could share the podcast and leave us a rating or review. Doing so helps people to find us and it helps us learn what we’re doing well and how we can continue to grow and provide our listeners with content that will truly transform their lives and their leadership.
And a big thanks to Lucian Green who helps us with the research and the writing for the podcasts and my longtime friends, Scott Higby, who does the audio and production and he has Studio C Creative Sound down in San Diego. Thanks again.