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Embrace Your Failures—Then Build on Them

Every leader fails at some point. When you share your failures with colleagues, you distinguish yourself as a true leader and pave the way for individual and organizational success.

By Adele Gambardella-Cehrs

Growing up as second-generation Italian-American, my mother, Lorraine Giordano-Gambardella, had little tolerance for whining, especially when it came to failing. She taught me that failure itself is not what counts, but how well you bounce back when you get knocked down.

However, what we often don’t take into account is that there is great capital involved in failure—from shattered egos to financial fallout to emotional setbacks. Failure can have catastrophic effects.

Instead of accepting failure in totality and moving on, I believe we need to retell our own personal stories with real truth to overcome our pasts—and, ultimately, succeed.

Here’s mine.

When I first started my PR firm in 2007, I was invited to speak at a major PR conference in New York City. When I addressed the 500-plus people in the audience, I began with a joke that didn’t garner any laughs. After that, I completely blanked and forgot everything I wanted to say. I panicked and nothing came out. I was so upset, I thought I would never speak again.

I vowed to rid myself of my fears and not let this one incident define me. Instead of eternally avoiding speaking engagements, I spoke at every free event that would take me. I perfected my craft. I faced my fears. Now I speak 30 times a year, for various associations and corporations.

As a crisis communications expert who’s helped hundreds of companies, nonprofits, and executives get through tough times, I've been on the front lines of failure and seen its fallout. Let’s just say it is not pretty. To overcome our fear of failure, we all need to be brave, embrace our mistakes, and make it popular to share stories of the uglier side of trying.

How many attempts will you make when you come up against adversity? Turn your negative experience into a source of empowerment.

From my experience, people who bounce back from adverse situations have three things in common when they emerge from the devastation:

They acknowledge their failures. Acknowledging failures will inspire other people. Just watch this TED Talk from the author of Eat, Pray, Love, who was rejected hundreds of times before becoming a New York Times bestselling author.

They use failure as opportunities. Don’t sulk. Figure out immediately what you can do to avoid making the same mistake twice. As simple as it sounds, most of us repeatedly find ourselves in the same situations because we fail to see how our choices led us there. Do what many successful people do: Keep a journal of positive and negative experiences to help guide you in times of uncertainty.

They don’t let failure define them. It took Thomas Edison 10,000 attempts to create a light bulb and James Dyson 5,126 attempts to invent a bagless vacuum cleaner. How many attempts will you make when you come up against adversity? Turn your negative experience into a source of empowerment.

The truth is we all fail sometimes, but celebrating the journey is one of the best ways to be seen as an authentic, dynamic leader. As C.S. Lewis said, “Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.” And I would add, “Enjoy your mistakes and share them with others.”

Adele Gambardella-Cehrs is CEO and founder of EPIC PR and author of SPIKE Your Brand ROI: How to Maximize Reputation and Get Results. She helps associations and companies manage their crisis communications, media relations, and corporate public relations. Email: [email protected]

Career Development