Responding to Failure


Failure and Probability

There are some implications of probability theory for leaders that cannot be ignored.   Among them are the Leadership Rules of Probability listed below and a humorous example of the concept.

  1.  Anything that can happen eventually WILL happen if given sufficient opportunities to occur.
  2.  Leaders cannot change Rule #1.
  3.  Leaders can influence the scenarios (the Kobiashi Maru Effect)

The First Challenge

An organization fired a well-respected leader due to a failure that occurred in his unit.  His replacement feels bad about his leaving and asks if he has any advice for him.  The outgoing leader says, “Yes, I have prepared three envelopes for you to guide you through the inevitable crises you will face. Each card in the envelopes has three words on it. They are in the third drawer of your desk. You should only open them in order as the crises arise and do exactly as they direct. Good luck!”  The new leader is a bit shocked but has plenty of work to do to deal with.  The new leader proceeds but in due course his boss calls him to discuss his performance.  So, he opens envelope #1 and the card inside has three words on it.


The Second Challenge

Having no better defense, the new leader tells his boss that the problems were caused by his predecessor.  He knows what needs to be done and needs more time.  Off the hook for the time being.  Sometime later, the boss calls another meeting to discuss performance.   So, the new leader opens the second envelope and reads the three words on the card.


The Final Challenge

The new leader goes to his boss with his reorganization plan.  It shows how he can improve productivity with an organization better aligned to the company’s goals. Off the hook for the second time.  Eventually, the first Leadership Rule of Probability manifests itself and trouble recurs. The distraught leader reaches into his drawer and nearly faints when he sees the three words on the card in the third envelope.


Failure is Inevitable

Thus, rule #1 stipulates that it is only a matter of time between occurrences of trouble.  The leader avoids the consequences of failure by changing the scenario (rule #3).   Of course, moving on to a new position before having to prepare three envelopes is a means of avoiding career ending situations.  It takes great talent (or a bit of luck) to pull that maneuver off.  Sooner or later,the leader faces that test of character presented by the Kobiashi Maru.

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