Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Fear of Failure Part II

Let's talk sport - rugby to be precise. Yesterday, the coach of rugby's world champions, the New Zealand All Blacks, stepped down. In eight years at the top, Graham Henry led his All Blacks to an 85% win rate in all Test matches, the team won 5 Tri-Nations titles, achieved 3 Grand Slams against Northern Hemisphere teams and finally won the Rugby World Cup not two weeks ago, after a 24 year gap since the last one.

Despite this incredible record, some have viewed this dour-faced man as being in just in the right place at the right time. The All Blacks of 2011 are just the most gifted side in the world, is the argument and so coaching them to these acheivements was nothing special. In his past, Henry has coached an invincible Auckland team when there was another set of All Blacks on the rise, having tutored the same youngsters as schoolboys. Amongst them it included one of the greatest points machines of all time, Grant Fox. Henry went on to coach Wales and in that time the team won 24 of 34 games, 10 of them in a winning streak that saw Wales become the first team to win a series in the Southern Hemisphere (albeit against Argentina), win for the first time against South Africa and then defeat both France and England (a reminder: Wembley - Scott Gibbs - enough said). While it could be said of Henry's teams that they had a few exceptionally gifted players in key positions, the reality was that the teams were made up of less exceptional talent which when all combined and coached the right way became extraordinary. But for a whisker, some would argue that Henry would have led the Lions of 2001 to victory had it not been for an injury to Richard Hill or the intervention of a duo called Gregan and Larkham. Interestingly, at that turning point, his players actually rebelled against him and the Tour imploded. The one and only major blot on his  exceptional copy book.

Perhaps what people mean about Henry's reign as All Black coach is that much of the problem was that teams playing against his side expected to lose. Teams turning out to play the All Blacks actually thought they had no chance and the best they could do was to give them a decent game.

I have blogged before about how Fear of Failure can stifle innovation in business and sport - it can kill creativity, it can paralyse organistions into a halt. But the opposite can be just as problematic. How many times have we said ourselves or heard salespeople say, 'I didn't achieve because the targets were too high'? If you set out with a mindset that you will fail, it's likely you will and then you can be at ease with failure by finding excuses. There is no Fear of Failure - it's accepted. In fact, you almost plan with failure in mind, to be second best or to allow the risk of failure to be higher than it should be - as if inviting it in.

In rugby, it would be akin to, 'It's not the winning that's important, it's the taking part.' Teams playing the All Blacks didn't fear losing to them as it was acceptable. So, in more cases than not, they failed and the All Blacks won.

Graham Henry's tenure as All Black coach was very, very close to failure - after all he started by failing in the 2007 Rugby World Cup. In the lead up to this World Cup, his team were beaten in successive games by South Africa and Australia to lose the Tri-Nations. Would the All Blacks choke again on the cusp of being world champions? In the tournament itself, late in the pool stages, they lost their key player, Dan Carter to a freak injury during training. In the next 3 games, the All Blacks showed just how dependent they were on him and how much they feared failure by not allowing any of his 3 replacements to step up to Carter's duties as play-maker and goal-kicker (well just one time, they did). Instead, the duties were largely put on the shoulders of an unexceptional team-man in Piri Weepu, the scrum-half who looked more like a player I might have played with than a 2011 professional. They looked a very different, almost vulnerable team but it worked fine until the final showdown.

The French, who had already capitulated to the All Blacks in the group stage, had gone on to lose to Tonga and then come within inches of losing to 14 man Wales in the semi-final. They were hardly a form team and looked in no way capable of winning the final - the New Zealand press even said on the morning of the semi against Australia, '80 minutes and we're laughing.' But the final was a different story. At the very start, during the famous Haka where Ma'a Nonu actually made a 'throat-cutting' gesture to his opposite number as a finale, the French formed a V with their captain, Thierry Dusautoir, at the apex and walked forward, hand in hand, to accept the challenge. Both sides had come to play. Both sides knew something about how they viewed failure.

The final was more attrition than rugby as the All Blacks somehow managed to hold onto a single point lead for a quarter of the game. While the All Blacks were petrified by the Fear of Failure, France laughed in its face - they were expected to fail and so they had nothing to lose. They threw everything at the All Blacks and came so close to winning because they did not care if they failed.

There are many analogies to business and personal endeavour here. If anyone has heard JK Rowling's address to the graduation ceremony of Harvard's elite, she tells the story of how Harry Potter came to us. When she had hit rock bottom with nothing else to lose, she focused on the one thing that could drag her back. And then some. Individuals and teams create faster and more ingeniously when they are not constrained by fears of failure.

Equally, some teams win because they Fear Failure more than anything else and so they plan to avoid it. 

The Fear of Failure is a vitally important phenonemon in life, business, personal endeavour and sport. Coping with it, harnessing it, facing it and using will make you personally stronger and more successful. You just need to understand which side of it you want to be.

One thing I have always believed to be true - experiencing failure can have two effects: 1) you grow to accept it or 2) you understand how to avoid it. In either case, you probably need to have experienced failure to best understand how you want to deal with it in the future. For me, experiencing failure had three major effects - i) it made success feel so much sweeter in the future, ii) it allowed me to analyse why I failed and to change my thinking to avoid it in the future and iii) I found acknowledging the fact I had failed was vitally important in avoiding it in the future and accepting help from others too. 

In all that mix, Graham Henry has learnt the hard way. He was never liked much or appreciated by most of the world. But he planned as much as he could to avoid failing because he did want the pain of losing. Whatever you say of him, his record is one of a true winner in a world of so called winners.

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