As an Englishman living in Australia I have just had to live through an excruciating experience – watching the English cricket team being trounced by the Australian team 5-0 in the Ashes series. Now if you are English or Australian you will know the cultural significance of this encounter. If you are not though, then it is worth knowing that the infamous ‘Ashes’ series, where England takes on Australia in five 5-day test matches, goes way beyond a simple sporting challenge. A complex web of cultural interdependencies, petty grievances, shared history, mutual antagonism, and common love is played out in this epic battle.
In the book I am just completing I talk a lot about the connection fans have with the things they support – the deep emotional connection they feel. Now I am experiencing it. As an Englishman and an England fan I am left with a profound sense of not just having lost, but having been totally crushed. 5-0 can only be categorised as abject failure. It doesn’t feel at all good.
It’s a good place for me to have to sit though, as in my work I have often said things like “Great teams are the ones that takes failure in their stride, that use it as a means to regroup, reinvent, and learn.” It is easy to say in a bright sunny room, less easy when you are in the pit of it yourself.
This seems like an ideal time to ask myself - what is there to learn from failure?
The most crucial thing I think is that failure is actually a point of view - it is very interesting to see how people react. We live in a world that is increasingly intolerant of failure, with a media that loves to admonish and blame. In fact as a society we collectively seem to be going that way. Be it sports team managers, captains of industry, or politicians, we are developing more and more of a ‘blame and shame’ mindset. So it is with England – there are calls for sacking, beheadings and blood.
Many businesses too seem to be going this way. In a world where financial accountability is becoming increasingly important, being associated with failure is becoming what polite HR managers call ‘career limiting’.
On the surface, having cultures with a low tolerance for failure seems to make sense – people will be responsible, ensure things get delivered, spend money wisely and well.
But actually it tends to have the opposite effect – people become risk averse, over cautious, fearful and play safe. When this happens your chances of failure – or at least not winning – greatly increase.
I saw some of these traits as the Ashes series went on. I think the England team is a great team with some great people in it – impressive as much for their characters as their skills. They did everything they could to regroup, but as the series wore on they became nervous, tight chested and ashen. Natural stroke players lost their nerve – either playing so defensively they became overwhelmed, or choosing poor shots based out of a desperate, rather than intuitive, desire to hit themselves out of trouble. Neither worked.
Great leadership is often more about how you deal with failure than success. Churchill’s turn around of morale after the near annihilation, then desperate retreat of Allied forces from Dunkirk is a perfect example. He didn’t try and sugar coat the failure, in fact he acknowledged it for the disaster it was. He didn’t try and spin his way out of it – he owned it, felt it, but then used it as a means to create a new context in which people could start to play a new and different game; defiant resistance.
What Churchill did was completely reframe the way the Allies saw themselves – from proud empire, to defiant underdog. Before Dunkirk they were winners of the First World War. After Dunkirk they were on the back foot, doggedly having to fight for every street and house. It was a context that galvanized a nation and a context that England could well have done with after they were taken apart in the first test match in Brisbane.
England played liked old world, pre Dunkirk, officers; decent, honest and good. But as they went down they needed to start to think, operate and act in a completely differently way, one that was capable of being with a snarling mean opposition that was playing like it was dealing with unresolved childhood issues. England could not do that without a significant change of the context, one that would change their relationship with what was going on.
It made me think of the 2005 European Cup Final when Liverpool played AC Milan. The first half saw Milan tear Liverpool to pieces. By halftime Liverpool were 3-0 down, having been totally outplayed. No one had ever come back from 3-0 down in a European Cup Final. The game appeared as good as over, especially when you saw how demoralised and beaten the Liverpool team looked.
After half time a different team came out though. They pushed, they fought, they harried… and then they got a goal back… then another… and remarkably a third. By the final whistle, and then after extra time, the teams were tied 3-3 and the game went to penalties. After a nail biting shoot out Liverpool won. It was one of the greatest turnarounds in football history.
So what made the difference?
Liverpool's manager Rafael Benitez said afterwards that when he went into the dressing room he saw his team were so demoralized there was no point in just trying to gee them up.
Instead he told them to stop worrying about winning. He pointed to all the supporters who had travelled all the way from the UK and paid a lot of money to be there. He said he didn’t care if they won. What he did care about was that they weren’t playing with pride. He told them to forget about the result and instead go out and play like they cared – to show the fans that they cared.
“We’re Liverpool!” he said “You’re playing for Liverpool. Don’t forget that. You have to hold your heads high for the supporters. You have to do it for them.”
Benitez changed the context and in doing so gave the team permission to let go and just play.
It was in this paradox of letting go of their attachment to the result that they had the freedom to win. In any situation there are often many factors outside our control. The England team for instance were up against a team playing like they were possessed – you can’t mitigate against that. What you can control though is the context in which you operate. Playing with pride for example is completely within your control, whatever the other team does. It’s a game you can win.
As the games we play – both in sport and business – become more and more ferocious, we actually need to learn how to quickly embrace failure, make it our friend. Reframing it in such a way that people are liberated to act rather than disabled by expectation and fear.
As innovation and new thinking becomes more and more important, so is the art of reframing failure as a means to inspire people to take on new risks.
That is what I’d like to see England do. I don’t care if they win the next series. What I do care about is that they let go of all expectations of winning or losing and do what Liverpool did. Just go out and play the way I know they can.
The Ashes explained … http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ashes
Transcript of Churchill’s speech ... http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2007/apr/20/greatspeeches3
Listen to Churchill’s speech ... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkTw3_PmKtc