Joe’s Journal: On Turning Failure to Success

“Knowledge workers . . . need to develop, preferably while they are still quite young, a noncompetitive life and community of their own, and some serious outside interest. This outside interest will give them the opportunity for personal contribution and achievement beyond the workplace. No one can expect to live very long without experiencing a serious setback in one’s life or in one’s work. There is the competent engineer who at age 42 is being passed over for promotion in the company. The engineer now knows that he has not been very successful in his job. But in his outside activity — for example, as treasurer in his local church — he has achieved success and continues to have success. And, one’s own family may break up, but in that outside activity, there is still a community.”

Peter F. Drucker

As knowledge workers we are bound to experience failure and serious failure at times. What matters in times of failure is our resolve to pursue, and ultimately accomplish, our mission in life and work. I know of no top executive who experienced more failures in his life than our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, both in office and prior to it.

[EXPAND More] His failures were especially pronounced in choosing his top generals during the Civil War. Following each battle that the Union lost, Lincoln, after suffering depression, went right to work to try to figure out what had gone wrong. While there were always underlying causes, he could not turn around the course of the war permanently until he found and tested Ulysses S. Grant, whom he ultimately promoted to lieutenant general and put in charge of Union Armies. Before then, the list of his failures in choosing generals was massive: Winfred Scott, George Halleck, Irvin McDowell, George McClellan twice, John Polk, Ambrose Burnside and Joseph Hooker.

Some of these failures simply reflected the superiority of the legendary generals of the Confederacy, including Robert E. Lee. But most failures were failures of strategy and tactics, which ultimately Lincoln had to devise himself and then find generals to successfully implement. Grant became known as “Unconditional Surrender Grant” because of his relentless pursuit of Confederate troops. Grant’s victories came with a tremendous loss of life on both sides, but this was a conflict so deep that it had to be “tried by war” and “decided by victory.” War, as Lincoln found out, is hell. Tragically, there did not seem to be any other way.

President Lincoln, known for his supreme magnanimity, had to join these instincts with discerning judgment that saved him from becoming sentimental. He provides us as knowledge workers with a tremendous lesson — what Peter Drucker called “feedback analysis”: Failure should be followed up by brutal self-evaluation and used as a steppingstone to success.

– Joe Maciariello