Failure is the most powerful learning tool. It’s also the basic ingredient in all major success stories, so why aren’t there ‘failure coaches’?

By Kevin McAlpin & Michael Millar

With the introduction of the various professional bodies attempting to formalise the profession, raise standards and introduce codes of ethics and guidelines, the UK coaching market has changed dramatically within the last few years. One of the challenges faced is the vast and very diverse backgrounds, styles and philosophies of the many coaches.

Our research has shown that the very best coaches and those who get the best results utilise a whole range of theories, techniques, models and approaches. Flexibility and adaptability are key in order to identify the approach that is appropriate for the client they face at a particular moment in time. Here we look at an additional option: that of the failure coach.

Learning to Fail

Personal development is a wide-ranging field that includes any mechanism for learning or developing yourself, including attending conferences, listening to motivational talks, going to seminars or courses, listening to tapes and reading books or articles. It may also include supervision and coaching. Often, as coaches, we are asked by our clients, ‘Help me become even more successful.’

The majority focus of the literature is on the can do/no such thing as failure mindset. This is valuable if people take the knowledge, couple it with the appropriate action, and make it part of their day-to-day routine. But more often than not, these books do not work for people. You will read one (or start to read it), you will learn the theory, but you won’t put it into practice.

Lessons from Failure

For you or your clients to succeed in business, there are two very simple principles. These form parts of the forthcoming book The Five-Minute Failure, which is a light-hearted look at success. The first is that you can learn just as much from failure as you can from success. Acts of failure tend to provide very clear examples of what needs to be done or avoided in order to succeed in the way that acts of success do. If you ignore either side of the coin, you’ll never be more than halfway there. Therefore, a flaw exists in the personal development literature; it focuses on success and what to do, and does not focus on what not to do – which is just as vital.

As executive and performance coaches in the realms of both corporate and sporting success, we have met and coached some of the highest performing individuals in the world. We have also invested many years in attending training courses, workshops, watching the good, the bad and the ugly speak at conferences, and listening to audio tapes on those long journeys in the car.

One thing we have noticed over all this time is that successful individuals are generally all exceptionally resilient. They all bounce back quickly from setbacks and failures. Often the greatest reasons for their successes have been the lessons they learned from their failures.

Both you as coach and your client need to address what to do and what not to do in your quest for success. Learn from the things they and others have got wrong as well as right. This allows you and them to reflect upon your own situation, making you aware of what you might need to stop doing. It will also allow you to see what you need to keep doing, and highlight a number of things you need to start doing.

Reflect and Prosper

Firstly, let’s reflect on your own failure.


1.    Recall your greatest failures in the following areas:

  • Your work
  • A major project
  • A business relationship
  • As a leader
  • Your life
  • A general, non-business relationship
  • A pastime, hobby or sport.

2.    Identify your greatest lesson from each of the failures, and write out how you are going to ensure you do not repeat the failure.
3.    What patterns are you noticing?
4.    What do you need to stop doing? Continue doing? Start doing?
5.    What one thing, if you did it on a regular basis, would have a positive impact on this area? Now let’s see what we can learn from the failures of others.

The Fear Factor

If you have a fear that stops you embarking on a journey towards success, be sure to remember the fact that psychologists believe over 95 per cent of fears have no real grounds at all. It’s true to say that the vast majority of worries have been made up by you (and the voices in your head) without any concrete evidence (rumour and hearsay do not count as evidence, by the way). Take a moment to think of something that is hindering your progress. Is there adequate evidence to say it’s not just your own paranoia? If there is something, is it easily overcome with a few words in the right ears?

If you take on board the idea that the vast majority of fears are without grounds, then there’s a likelihood that you’ll begin to gain the self-assurance you need to get you out of your comfort zone, overcome fears, and find yourself well on your way to success.

A light-hearted and powerful example of this wings its way to us from Guayaquil — the biggest city in Ecuador. There Mayor Jaime Nebot hired a parrot to speak for him when the media asked him ‘undesirable questions’ that put him in an awkward position.

He brought out the parrot at a press conference, and declared: ‘Here is a parrot that will be in charge of answering all the undesirable comments that I have no time to answer.’ He tried to explain his action by saying: ‘Some people only approach me with nonsense talk, so the parrot will answer back in the same way because I need to use my time to work.’ The undesirable comments included questions on such trifling matters as social security policy.

Nebot was too scared to try to take on the journalists. He avoided the challenge. Now no one has any respect for him whatsoever.

Talking-up Success

Feel the fear and do it anyway. You have the best coach in the world inside your own mind (the little voice you hear when you talk to yourself). Natter away happily to yourself. Give yourself positive reinforcement and encouragement. Lay down the gauntlet to your fears – take them on, and more often than not you will win.

Tackling Self-denial

We turn now to lying on a philosophical level: the fine art of self-denial. The past masters – who have black belts in the art — have shown you have two options. The first is to convince yourself of your own inadequacy and wallow in self-pity and self-loathing. Secondly, you can start kidding yourself that you are brilliant at everything, even if the evidence is that you have been less than successful. Simply turn a blind eye to your genuine inadequacies and continue with what you are doing and how you are doing it. If you do this, there’s no way you can improve. This might sound absurd to any rightminded person. Yet look about you and clock all the colleagues you have who make mistake after mistake and never seem to learn from them.

The more senior you are, the more damage you can reap with wilful self-delusion. Take Al-Saadi Gadaffi, son of the Libyan dictator, Colonel Gadaffi. Young Gadaffi was captain and striker for the Tripoli football club Al-Ittihad, which won several medals and tournaments. This doesn’t sound like a failure story, does it? But if you delve a little deeper, you find the ideal case study.

You see, Al-Ittihad wasn’t actually doing very well. Al-Saadi Gadaffi was head of the Libyan Football Association, and made a habit of ignoring his team’s lack of success. He showered them with medals and trophies, whether they played any games or not. He also sacked the Libyan international coach who dropped him from the national team, despite the team having some notable successes after he was left on the bench.

His dad, Colonel Gadaffi, had no better sense when he said: ‘The Libyan army is capable of destroying America and breaking its nose.’ There is clearly a family trait that may be identified here.

Mapping the Milestones for Success

Self-awareness is fundamental to building Emotional Intelligence and being clear about your strengths, weaknesses and defence mechanisms. Successful people are always honest and realistic with themselves. In this way they can analyse why things went wrong, learn from their mistakes and move on. Take a look at how a project has gone and note where you could have done things better. If you then act upon your notes, you are well on the road to success.
Now let’s look at some real-life lessons:
1.    Recall the greatest failures you have seen by others in the following areas:

  • Their work
  • A major project
  • A business relationship
  • As a leader
  • A meeting or group situation
  • Their life in general
  • A non-business relationship
  • A pastime, hobby or sport.

2.    For each, identify the greatest lesson to be learned from each of the failures, and write down how you would ensure that you did not repeat their failure.
3.    What patterns are you noticing for yourself?
4.    What do you need to stop doing? Continue doing? Start doing?
5.    What one thing might you do on a regular basis that would have a positive impact on this area?

Remember, success and happiness are goals that go hand-in-hand. Failures are just milestones on the road to success, often taking you closer to success. If they do not, you always have the option of getting off the road at the next exit and changing direction.

Famous people who took this advice include Marilyn Monroe, who was dropped by Twentieth Century Fox because Darryl Zanuck thought she was unattractive; Walt Disney, whose first cartoon production company Laugh-o-Gram went bankrupt; The Beatles, who were rejected by Decca Records, Philips, Columbia and HMV; Christopher Columbus, who discovered an island in the Bahamas which he thought was the Indies, Cuba which he thought was part of China, and the Dominican Republic which he thought was the

Far East; and, finally, Elvis Presley who was given a ‘C’ grade by a school music teacher in Memphis and told he could not sing.

See; failures really are milestones on the road to success.

Seven of the Best

Having understood the benefits of understanding failure, let’s turn to the keys for success.

Ask yourself or your clients if you are happy, motivated, leading yourself, prospering and fulfilling your potential.

Over the last ten years, the authors have collectively undertaken in-depth research into over ten-thousand individuals who in society today are classed as being either hugely successful or massive failures. These include individuals from all parts of the globe and society, including both the corporate and the sports worlds. They have researched over 250 success, self-help and personal development books; audio tapes; and courses covering success, happiness, leadership, motivation and how to fulfil your potential as well as failure. So we’ve found seven success principles:

1.    Attitude, resilience and optimism — expect the best
Successful people have a positive mental attitude, they are resilient and bounce back quickly from setbacks. They are optimistic in their outlook; they expect the best and get it. As the famous saying goes, ‘You get what you focus on.’

2.    Visions – strengths/skills/values/purpose
Successful people play to their strengths and natural abilities, doing what they enjoy. They are aware of their skills and weaknesses, and get people around them whose strengths underpin their weaknesses and vice versa. They ensure everything they do is underpinned by their values and they have a clear purpose for what they are doing.

3.    Practice/goals and disciplined use of time
Successful people set goals that are milestones towards their visions, and then practise, practise and practise their natural skills and abilities. They are disciplined in their use of time spent moving towards those goals.

4.    Trust intuition, take risks and be action oriented
Successful people trust themselves and their intuition and take calculated risks, putting their decisions into action and having the flexibility and adaptability to change along the way as appropriate.

5.    Relationships — visibility and perceptions/personal branding
Trust relationships are key: you need people to achieve your visions. Successful people understand the importance of knowing who they are and what you stand for – what their unique brand is. They also realise that they need visibility for their great work and in order to manage the perceptions of others.

6.    Leadership learners — turn any situation to an advantage
Great leaders lead their own lives. They constantly learn and read, they are often known for being lucky. The truth is that they are lucky because they turn any situation to their advantage.

7.    Rounded whole people — work life in balance/happy
Successful people focus on aligning happiness and success. They are rounded whole people who are not just the sum of their role or work, but are so much more …

Finally — it is not knowing it that matters, it is doing it. That may be common sense, but it is making ‘doing’ common practice that matters.

Coaching Excellence

Everyone faces numerous challenges every week, month and year. Invariably, not all will be successes, but from failures there are huge opportunities for greater understanding, and the chance to build up even stronger. Coaching from the industry best provides the resilience and flexibility to do just this.