When JK Rowling, the bestselling author of the Harry Potter series, was invited to give the Harvard University Commencement address a few years ago, she chose the benefits of failure as her subject. Not an obvious choice for the audience of Harvard graduates, their proud parents and professors, but an inspired one.
“It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default,” she told her audience.
A few years later, and this April’s issue of the Harvard Business Review is branded “The Failure Issue”, with the entire contents devoted to failure, its lessons and its rewards. The message is that failure may not be fun, but it is good for you.
It was only when Soichiro Honda was turned down for a job with Toyota and the young man instead started to make scooters in his back yard that the foundations were laid for what would become a multi-billion dollar company. Bill Gates’ first venture after dropping out of Harvard, Traf-O-Data, bombed. Walt Disney was famously fired from his job on the Kansas City Star newspaper because “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.”
Risk and failure, like love and marriage in the Frank Sinatra song, go together. Innovation thrives on a degree of managed failure. So in a fast-moving business environment, the need to fail, learn, and move on, is a critical leadership skill.
There is a school of thought that says that women are inherently more risk-averse than men, and also better at avoiding the biggest failures. Michel Ferrary, professor of management at Ceram Business School, spoke for many in his recent FT article entitled Why Women Shine in A Downturn. However, his piece led to a vehement counter-blast from fellow academics Herminia Ibarro, Lynda Gratton and Martha Maznevski, who argued that there is simply no evidence for women being more cautious than men.
Whichever view you hold, women do need to have exposure to risk in their journey to the boardroom. Women may be held back from the riskiest assignments by the best of intentions: that the organisation doesn’t want to see them fail. Or women themselves may hold back from signing up to challenges outside their comfort zones because of some gender-induced cautiousness.
But either way, keeping women out of the firing line isn’t helping them acquire the skills they need for today’s corporate boardroom. Women need to be allowed, even encouraged, to screw up.