Leadership: the importance of talking about failure

There was a CV going around social media and the press posted by a tired academic who wanted to expose just how much our culture is based on success and competition. It was eye opening… As a fairly young academic myself, it was encouraging to read and know that others have bad days too. About a month ago, I was talking to a colleague I look up to and found out that behind her successes there were rejected papers. I had no idea. In academia, it is common to celebrate successes, and perhaps brag about them too, but it is also common to complain about reviewer 2, the biased editor, or the tardiness with which a paper is handled. There’s a good summary of typical academics and how to handle them here. Being a woman in STEM it can be considered even more important to just show off the best results and just how successful one is, to compete against gender bias. So when I attended the event “Women in Leadership” organised by UCL PALS Athena Swan I was expecting an empowering talk on how to stand up against men and show off our best traits. I have never been so wrong.

The talk was given by Harriet Minter, founder and editor of the Guardian column ‘Women in Leadership’. She started off by telling her story of how she became a leader, which was not only filled with all the ingredients of a woman in the workplace – self-doubt, wanting to fix everything, imposter syndrome – but covered also a good handful of failures and knock downs. More importantly, for every failure or road bump, she presented a series of lessons learnt, showing off what a great leader she is.

There were other two refreshing elements in her talk:

  1. First of all, most of the talks or articles for women in the workplace, focus on the idea that we need to learn to say ‘no’ in order to set boundaries, protect our time, and prevent us from our worst enemy: “the red cross nurse syndrome” (that’s what we call in Italian the tendency that women have to fix everything and take care of others in spite of their own health). Harriet instead reminded us that ‘no’ is not always the answer, and that new opportunities, exciting projects, and adventures only come if you don’t say ‘no’ all the time, but remember to say ‘yes’.
  2. Secondly, although the title of the event was “Women in Leadership” and she referred to several role models throughout, the lessons are for everyone. I counted three men in the packed room of about 50 people, which is the highest male attendance I’ve ever seen at such events. More than focusing on empowering women alone, her talk was aimed at changing the overall mentality of women in the workplace, and therefore aiming to both men and women.

So what were some of the lessons learnt?

PROCEED UNTIL APPREHENDED

No matter the amount of failure, you can only succeed if you don’t give up. So whenever you are stuck, have a problem, or have an idea you don’t know how to concretise:

  1. Scale it down. Starting off with a grand project can be frightening for you, or even those that are supposed to invest in you. By scaling it down, you have an achievable starting point to build on.
  2. Find an ally, to be reassured and have a boost in confidence, especially when things get hard.
  3. Just start. Although this sounds a lot like the best marketing slogan, she and Nike have a point: start small and simple. Things will never change unless you do something about it.
WE ARE ALL HEROS WITH A QUEST

She then compared her story with that of any hero’s narrative. Whenever you watch a Disney or Marvel movie, or any other film/book/comic that has a hero, there are always five elements of the story. Filmmakers, theatre producers, and storytellers study this at school, like my friend Elisa who had first pointed out these five elements to me six years ago, but we just tend to think that they belong to the fictional life, while instead this happens to all of us:

  1. There is a hero with a quest and a bunch of skills in a backpack.
  2. The hero starts his/her journey so excited and filled with hope, that he/she suddenly missed the bit pothole in front of him/her, and falls down.
  3. While the hero is stuck down there, in order to get back on track to his quest, he/she reaches in the backpack. While the skills he/she finds in there are not necessarily the right ones to get him/her out, it’s how he/she uses them that will get him/her out [*will get back to this point later]
  4. As the hero climbs out of the pothole, a mystery stranger arrives and puts him/her back on the path
  5. The hero finally succeeds in his/her quest.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ENDURANCE AND RESILIENCE

This is the point of the story where the best advice she was ever given, Proceed until apprehended, ties in with the hero’s narrative. When the hero is in the pothole, he/she can keep trying, keep going, just like a runner can reach the finish line if he/she pursues long enough. But when they get out, they might not have any energy left to notice the stranger or proceed on the path. This is where resilience comes in. Resilience is the ability to still stand and walk away when you reach the finish line, or you climb out of the dungeon and proceed on your path to success. Even if we don’t have the right skills for the task, it’s up to us to adapt the skills that we do have, to make things work for us. By learning from past failures and falls, we can practice and learn our resilience skills.

FIND YOUR TEAM

Finally, the last bit of advice comes from her encounter with Sheryl Sandberg, who performed the equivalent productivity sprint of a month’s work in just three hours, whilst visiting The Guardian. If behind every successful man they say there is a strong woman, behind every successful woman there is a team. In Sheryl’s case, it was made up of people who would help her keep to time and take care of menial tasks. In our case, this team is our support network that can help us in rough times, and on whom we can rely on for the skills we lack. We just have to remember to play in other people’s teams too…

Going back to the beginning of this post, the importance of talking about failure lies in the ability to roll up your sleeves, stand up again and learn from it. In my giant OneNote notebook called unimaginatively ‘PhD’, I now have a section called “failures”, where I write all the things that go wrong and what I can learn from them, as well as keep track of my own hero journey.

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