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Here we go: Success and Failure

What do success and risk have in common?

My wife and I own several swim schools in central Texas. Last year, we provided more than 200,000 swim lessons at our five facilities. We helped a lot of kids grow stronger and more comfortable in and around the water.  It was a very successful year of providing more lessons to more children than ever.

We also had a very risky year.  We demolished and rebuilt one of our five swim school at the same time we were building a brand new school.  For small business owners, borrowing several million dollars and managing two major development projects during a time of labor shortages, uncertainty in the financial markets, supply-chain constraints and high staff turnover meant it often felt like we were on the brink of losing everything.

Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, once said “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive. Inside the seat of every success is the risk of failure.”

While I’m not sure I fully agree with his comment about the paranoid, I do know that inside the seat of every success is the risk of failure.

In fact, if you’re not risking, you’re probably not trying enough. The challenge is that if we risk and fail too often as leaders, we probably shouldn’t be in leadership positions. But if we’re not risking and failing some, I suspect it’s because we’re not pushing hard enough.

The Stockdale Paradox is a powerful concept documented by Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great. In his research on top-performing companies – leaders in their industries – he observed the balance of two seemingly opposing realities:  the leaders of these firms faced the brutal reality of the risk and exposure they were facing during times of challenge, while at the same time maintaining an unending sense of hope and optimism.

Surrounded by challenges, this ability to be both realistic about the potential for risk and failure while also maintaining a deep well of optimism should be part of what marks us as leaders. Having that unending optimism amidst leadership disappointment makes us better leaders.

Fellow leader – how do you make sure you lean into risk while remaining optimistic?