I haven’t been thinking too much about failure , until I read Roy Snell’s piece, “We Are All Victims…Except Richard Bistrong.” Roy’s article took me by surprise, as his blog piece addresses a primary foundation of my work: embracing failure, and making sure to be transparently clear that I was no victim- to my former employer, to culture, or even to drug addiction. I can’t get to the lessons of how my crucible might be a learning moment for others if that doesn’t come across unfettered and unfiltered.
Thank you, Roy.
For those who have heard me speak, you probably recall my ‘pause,’ right at the start, where I share one single message: “There is only one person responsible for Richard Bistrong going to prison, and that’s Richard Bistrong.” I think that’s what Roy means when he says that “(Richard) is one of the most honest, formerly dishonest, guys I have ever met.” You see, the failure that I own, and own up to, is the failure that can be a potential opportunity for others to think about their own policies and processes, and specifically, how they address real-world corruption risk.
Does this come easy? Of course not, talking to friendly groups of strangers about my criminal conduct is not exactly what I thought I would be doing when I received my Master’s Degree at the University of Virginia. So why is it so hard for us (me) to admit our mistakes, even one’s that don’t end up with a prison sentence? There is an engaging article in the Harvard Business Review with the same question: Why Is It So Hard for Us to Admit Our Mistakes by Karen Firestone, and it starts out with a nod to the obvious: “no one finds it easy to own up to a mistake-particularly a costly one.” It’s also well stated in another HBR article “Increase Your Return on Failure,” where authors Julian Birkinshaw and Martine Haas share that, “reviewing past problems isn’t just tedious; it’s painful. Most of us would prefer to invest our time in looking forward, not back.” Indeed.
Firestone gives a few reasons why it’s so difficult, including that “many people are afraid of appearing incompetent.” Perhaps that’s an advantage of being a convicted felon- I left the remnants of my ego at the Prison Camp. Getting locked up demonstrates the ultimate incompetence- as a person, as an employee, and as a family member. I don’t have to be on the defensive about that, or fear it, and it’s actually liberating, albeit from a very dark experience. It allows me to use that part of my past, without being shameful about it, as a forward leaning pivot point to current challenges. Being clean and sober, reconnected with my loved one’s, and engaging positively with society and my work environment, also allows for a firm embrace of the past without throwing down Roy’s victim card.
As Birkinshaw and Hass share, “when you accept and own up to an error, it becomes much easier to pinpoint its origination and analyze its progression through the system,” which I think complements Roy’s reflection that “to improve our chances of being a principled-based society, we have to stand up to the victimization crowd. Until we do, our effort to improve society is going to be very slow.”
I agree with Birkinshaw and Hass when they state that “while it’s useful to reflect on individual failures, the real payoff comes from when you spread the lessons across the organization.” They recommend a “triple F” review- do it fast, frequently and stay forward-looking. Try it, and stay away from Roy’s “single V”- “victimization.” It helps no one, and you might lose what could be immeasurable value from your mistakes and failures.