Benjamin Zander is a gifted cellist, a celebrated conductor and the founder of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. He also has a thriving sideline as a leadership expert, with lessons drawn from his years as a teacher and mentor to young musicians. Zander advocates an unorthodox reaction to making a mistake: Throw your arms in the air, tilt your head back and exclaim: “How fascinating!” “You cannot learn anything unless you make a mistake, so I tell my students, ‘When you make a mistake, celebrate,’” he said in a 2012 lecture.
Cheering failure with a mighty yell sounds preposterous—but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. I was introduced to Zander’s radical optimism in a presentation by Ashley Good, the CEO of Fail Forward. Her consultancy focuses on helping organizations turn failures into opportunities to innovate and grow. “The genius of Zander’s approach is that it reduces the anxiousness and stress of the situation, asking us to get voraciously curious about what we can learn from the failure,” Good tells me by email. She notes the reaction might be too cheerful in the face of devastating error, but even then it’s worth surveying the situation with “a solemn and determined, ‘How fascinating—what did I learn?’”
It’s good advice, particularly in this country, where our business community is notoriously chicken. Five years ago, Deloitte released a study probing Canadian executives’ willingness to take calculated risks. The consultants classified 43% of companies as “hesitant” in their strategies and 15% as “fearful” (only 11% were deemed “courageous”). More recently, a survey by the Rideau Hall Foundation found six in 10 believe their fellow Canadians are risk-averse.
Dodging risk isn’t a great business strategy. Deloitte’s research showed courageous firms were far more likely than fearful ones to see revenue growth.
But attitudes are changing. Here are a few words Canadian entrepreneurs associated with the concept of failure, according to a survey last year by Startup Canada: opportunity, chance, challenge, learn and improve. The advocacy group’s list also included a few negative sentiments, but the majority of the 800 respondents had a positive view of screwing up. Now, Canadians need to move from lip service to action. As one entrepreneur told Startup Canada: “We say we embrace failure but actually stigmatize those who do, to the point that people are afraid to fail.”
There’s no shame in admitting defeat. To prove it, this issue features eight inspiring leaders telling us about their biggest failures—and what they learned from them. Taken together, their stories show that frustration and setbacks are necessary ingredients for success. And they give us a chance to hear about someone else’s failure and think: How fascinating.