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Why Smart Leaders Make Intelligent Failures

I recently interviewed Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. She's best known for coining the term "psychological safety," which is now used every day in conversations in organizations of all shapes and sizes, from small teams in tech startups to board members of Fortune 50 companies to athletes on professional sports teams.


Yet surprisingly, it turns out that very few leaders actually understand why psychological safety is a prerequisite for success, much less how to embed it into their organization's culture. In other words, they use the words but don't understand the meaning.

That's partly why Edmondson wrote her new book, The Right Kind of Wrong, The Science of Failing Well. In it, she further explains the nuances of psychological safety, how leaders can create it, and why it inspires people to take risks and venture into the unknown, even if there is a chance of failure. The key, of course, is learning from these so-called "intelligent failures," and becoming an even better leader in the process.

A few examples stood out during my conversation with Edmondson, and they span both the business and sports worlds. The leaders below exemplify what it means to learn from the right kind of wrong. They perfectly modeled vulnerability and, in the process, helped their organizations become more innovative.


Brad Smith, the iconic former CEO and chairman of the board of Intuit, remembers a time as a young employee when he made a terrible mistake. He had grossly overestimated the potential of a new market segment that was under his purview. The night before a big presentation to the company's board, in which he would be forced to share the dismal results, Smith called his dad, almost crying about what seemed inevitable the next day -- his termination from the company he loved.

Yet the board surprised him. After Smith shared the bad news, the board responded, "Thank you for your honesty. You have taught us a valuable lesson. We now know what not to do and how to better allocate future resources into more strategic areas." Smith was stunned, and felt an immediate feeling of relief in every cell of his body.


He didn't let these intense feelings go to waste. Smith leveraged this crucible opportunity to better understand the power of being vulnerable. Going forward, rather than hiding bad information, and letting it cause personal anxiety, he was determined to more proactively share the information and have an honest discussion about it, for better or worse. Since then, Smith has earned a reputation for being one of the most transparent, innovative, and humble leaders in all of Silicon Valley. Intuit's stock price skyrocketed nearly tenfold during his tenure.


In the sports world, Dansby Swanson recently signed a $177 million deal with the Chicago Cubs baseball team. He hit the jackpot. But just a few short years earlier, he had struggled mightily as a rookie. Sleepless nights rocked his world because he couldn't shake a horrible batting slump. But rather than berating or benching him, the coaching staff talked openly with Swanson about his slump and encouraged him to try new things, reflect, and even keep a diary. His coaches wanted him to get the negative, debilitating thoughts out of his cluttered mind and onto paper so he could start each day, and each new at-bat, with a clean slate.


Swanson took the advice to heart. He kept a detailed diary, became highly introspective, and changed his psychological stance. Eventually, he began to frame new experiences differently. Rather than focusing on the times he did not get a hit, he told himself, "If I can just get a hit three out of ten times, I'm going to be considered a Hall of Fame player one of these days." The new strategy worked by. He played a key role in helping his former team, the Atlanta Braves, win a World Series in 2021, and then signed a lucrative contract with the Chicago Cubs.


Former NBA coach Stan Van Gundy shared an interesting story about one of his former players, JJ Redick. After a crushing loss, Van Gundy approached Reddick and patted him on the back and said "Good game. Don't worry. We will get them next time." Van Gundy vividly described the look of horror on Reddick's face. At first Van Gundy was confused but soon realized Reddick didn't want superficial complements. He was craving honest feedback and constructive criticism, particularly in that moment of despair. After the loss, Reddick was ready -- in both his head and his heart -- to learn from his mistakes and to grow as a player and as a leader.


All of these leaders -- Smith, Swanson, and Reddick -- embraced a growth mindset early in their careers, one that is the essence of learning from the right kind of wrong.

You should too.


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