Failure is the key to success. Failure is an event, it’s not a person and it should never define you. Those who learn from failure, their own and the failures of others, are best equipped for success and even greatness. We’re all familiar with the statistics of Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan – the number of strike-outs and missed shots; yet they are Hall Of Fame legends. We all know that you have to be willing to fail to succeed. They also knew it but they went beyond the ten thousand hours it takes to become ‘unconsciously competent’ at something to be committed to a winning attitude. They hard-wiring successful habits to break though losing streaks, ignoring the doubters, believing in themselves and earning the success they so passionately pursued.
But I’m not a big fan of sporting metaphors for business. I instead believe that the military and political spheres are more relevant domains for inspiration in professional selling and leadership. Winning in business is about strategy and execution, people and numbers, attitude and skill, EQ and IQ, work ethic and effectiveness. Allow me to share three true stories – two of politicians with Lazarus style resurrections and one of the richest man in China. There are great lessons here in the role of failure in creating success.
This first leader came for humble beginnings, born into poverty with his family forced out of their home. At a young age he had to work to support them and his mother died. Plans to take over the family store went nowhere and the business disappeared. He studied and worked to improve himself as best he could before deciding to run for State Legislature and lost. He then lost his job and applied for law school but was rejected. He borrowed money from a friend to start a business which failed within a year. He was a bankrupt and spent seventeen years repaying debt.
He then ran for state legislature again and won. Life seemed on the up and he fell in love and became engaged but his fiancée died tragically. He was broken-hearted, suffered from depression and had a breakdown. He barely lived – existing with deep dark depression – ‘the black dog’ as Winston Churchill later described. Luckily at that time there was no Fox News or social media to ‘out him’ as wasting tax payer money and he recovered to emerge after six months and later sought to become speaker of the State Legislature but was defeated. He then sought to become Elector and was defeated again. He then ran for Congress and lost. Undeterred, and despite advice not to, he ran for Congress again and this time he won.
He went to Washington and performed well enough – but not in the minds of voters. He lost as a sitting congressman but was committed to public service. He sought the job of Land Officer in his home state but his application was rejected. A few years later he ran for The Senate and lost. But his passion for politics remained – he wanted to make a difference. A few years later he sought the Vice-Presidential nomination at his party’s national convention and attracted less than 100 votes. He then ran for Senate again and lost.
Many would have looked at him and said: ‘Washed-up has-been, mediocre life, failure.’ If you were his friend at the time you could have easily given him some salient advice: “If the horse is dead, get off. Go find another one – maybe you should go back to business. You’d be pretty unlucky to go bankrupt twice in your life.”
But he knew that he could never make the kind of difference America needed running a store. He ran for public office again. Failure had not worn him down – it had not blunted his resolve. Instead it had shaped his character and made him more determined than ever. He was stoic and surrounded himself with people he trusted – positive, solid, reliable, insightful, supportive, true believers in his cause to rid the world of self-destructive ideology and evil. He faced the awful truth head-on and had a vision to unite a broken people. Abraham Lincoln became 16th President Of The United States, leading through to the end of the Civil War and abolishing the blight of slavery on the soul of a great nation. He never gave up and was committed to his vision for a just and moral America, and his mission to lead and heal a nation.
The second leader will be less known to most of my readers. He was called ‘the Lazarus of Australian politics’. His father owned a small gas station in the suburbs of Sydney and he was the youngest of four sons. He grew up to go to university and graduate in law before becoming solicitor. He joined a political party in university and eventually ran for public office winning a Federal Parliament seat and rose to the position of Treasurer of Australia. His party then lost the next election and he unsuccessfully contested the party’s leadership but lost. He contested again before the next election and won the role of Opposition Leader but led his party to defeat at the poles. He was challenged following the defeat in the general election and then lost the leadership within his party when challenged in the fall-out.
He served as a low level shadow minister under three successive Opposition Leaders but he never lost his aspiration to lead. Six years after being dethroned as Opposition Leader within his party he won the leadership again – he was back. In March 1996 he won a sweeping election victory and John Howard became Australia’s 25th Prime Minister. His Government was returned at three consecutive elections; he became the second longest-serving Australian Prime Minister, after Robert Menzies. His prime ministership achieved a long period of economic prosperity, historically low interest rates and unemployment levels, huge budget surpluses and significant economic reforms that positioned the country to sail through the GFC when it hit being one of the strongest economies in the world.
He is the first international leader to pledge support to the USA after the 9/11 attacks. He was in America at the time and spoke in congress just days later to a standing ovation. He led through terrorism attacks of Australian and other country’s citizens in Bali. He took the initiative following the Port Arthur massacre, the biggest in Australian history, to successfully pass gun laws that prohibited citizens owning semi-automatic weapons at all or hand-guns without strict controls. It’s rare for a political leader to lose their position but come back to win at the highest levels. Normally, once you’ve had your go you get tipped on the scrap heap – been there, done that, tried him – didn't work… ‘next!’ Howard made a difference and left a positive legacy. He was no Abraham Lincoln or Mandela but he came back, won and made a positive difference.
Just like John Howard, Mitt Romney can come back as well – it will be a very interesting Presidential race and then election. Bill Clinton was the nicknamed ‘the comeback kid’ and maybe Hilary can come back too? The 2016 election could be a Lazarus battle of Biblical proportions!
My third example is Jack Ma, the Executive Chairman of Alibaba. He is the richest man in China and personally made more money in 90 days than Amazon Corporation made in 20 years. Alibaba was the biggest IPO in Wall Street history. Yet Jack Ma was trained to be a teacher and he is not a technology geek. Instead he is focused on what technology can do for people, what problems it can solve, what markets it can create.
Alibaba is staggering and here are some of the numbers: 100 million buyers shopping on their site every day and 60 million actual transactions every day. They’ve created 14 million jobs in China and have gown from 18 people to 30,000 staff in just 15 years. Yahoo invested $1 billion in the business. 800 million people use Alipay; the sister financial transaction system. Alibaba has a bigger market capitalization than Wallmart and IBM… wow! The average age of their staff is 28.
Jack’s life is however one of overcoming rejection. He applied to 3 colleges to study teaching and he was rejected by all of them. He then gained acceptance on his fourth choice and secured his teaching qualifications. He applied for school teaching roles and failed the exams. He applied for a job with KFC and 24 people applied for roles and 23 were accepted…except Jack. He applied for job with the police with 5 other people and 4 were accepted but not Jack. After he began to be successful in business he applied for Harvard and has been rejected ten times.
He learned English by offering to be a guide to Westerners for free. This became the education that changed his life. His Chinese name was too difficult to pronounce and a tourist gave him the name ‘Jack’ – he adopted it.
Jack Ma is genuinely humble and here is some of Jack’s advice:
- “The most important thing in commerce is TRUST. Everything I’ve done is to build up trust.”
- “Leadership is about responsibility.” He is absolutely committed to integrity, ethically and legally.
- “Never rely on the government for eCommerce.”
- “If we want to change the world, change yourself first.”
- “My job is making sure my team is happy. If the team is happy, it makes my customers happy.”
- “The secret sauce for Alibaba's success is that we have a lot of women.”
- “If someone says no, it’s just the beginning.”
- “Be inspired and work as a team. It’s all about how you see the world – find Inspiration in movies such as Forest Gump. Life really is like a box of chocolates.”
Here is an amazing and masterful interview with Jack Ma. Enjoy and learn – you’re watching the world’s commercial future.
What this means for salespeople and entrepreneurs alike is simple – press on;take the road less traveled. March to the beat of your own drum and be willing to fail forward. Hold your to the vision and the dream. In sales, 'it ain't over 'til it's over.' I can't tell you how many deals were deemed 'closed-lost' that went to the most persistent party that hung in there to get to the 'closed won' finish line. But that's not the finish line: executing on the project is. Delivery of value and retention. Keep an eye on them with Client Services and ensure they receive more than the outcome they were sold. That's integrity!
Be the change you wish to see in the world and steel yourself to opposing forces. Take inspiration from these true stories; if you can dream it, anything is possible! I've worked for many companies in my career and it's important to know that you can be the success particle to effect change in the system. The grass is always greener and jumping around laterally can build backward momentum. You don't need to be the CEO to lead. Start leading today in how you comport yourself, your positivity and work with the passion of a champion. When you set the stage the world is clay for your intent.
Failure, tragedy and rejection have shaped my life but that’s a story for another time. Now it’s over to you. How has failure and rejection shaped your success?
If you valued this article, please hit the ‘like' and ‘share’ buttons below. This article was originally published in LinkedIn here where you can comment. Also follow the award winning LinkedIn blog here or visit Tony’s leadership blog at his keynote speaker website: www.TonyHughes.com.au.
Main Image Photo by Flickr: Doug Kline