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The Failure-Tolerant Leader Going Beyond Motivation to The Power of Volition

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The Failure-Tolerant Leader by Richard Farson and Ralph Keyes

"The fastest way to succeed" IBM's Thomas Watson, Sr., once said, "is to double your failure rate." People are afraid to fail, and corporate culture reinforces that fear. The presence of failure-tolerant leaders can help employees overcome their anxieties about making mistakes. In the process, they create a culture of intelligent risk-taking that leads to sustained innovation. Such leaders don't just accept productive failure, they promote it.

Failure-tolerant leaders break down the social and bureaucratic barriers that separate them from their followers. They engage at a personal level with the people they lead. They avoid praising or criticising, preferring to take a non judgmental, analytical posture as they interact with staff. They openly admit their own mistakes, instead of trying to cover them up or shifting the blame. And they try to root out the destructive competitiveness built into most organizations.

Above all, failure-tolerant leaders push people to see beyond the traditional definitions of success and failure. They know that as long as a person views failure as the opposite of success, rather than its complement, he or she will never be able to take the risks necessary for innovation.

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Going Beyond Motivation to The Power of Volition by Ghoshal, Sumantra and Bruch, Heike

Motivation is the desire to do something. Volition is the absolute commitment to achieving something. Motivating managers with carrot and stick is overly simplistic. People commit to action for more subtle reasons.


Volition, implies deep personal attachment to an intention. Volitional managers have a powerful need to produce results and are not driven by rewards or even enjoyment. Willpower lets managers execute disciplined action even when they lack desire, expect not to enjoy the work, or feel tempted by alternative opportunities.

Volitional managers do not wait for further information or external stimuli to get started. They focus attention and energy on information supporting their goals and block out contradictory information. They are not tempted by other opportunities or distracted by disruptions.

Motivation often crumbles at negative feedback, resistance from colleagues or lack of executive interest. Volition, however, is inspired by obstacles.

Three phases define the process of creating and leveraging volition: intention formation, the resolution to cross over to willpower, and intention protection.

When there's no choice -- in reality or in perception -- there can be no free will, no volition. Also essential is acceptance of personal responsibility. The decision to commit comes with the resolve to bear full responsibility.

Companies are full of distractions that take attention and energy away from purposive action. Willful managers modify their environment so as to be impervious to these distractions. For example, deliberately creating social pressures (public commitments, challenging deadlines or having relevant stakeholders monitor a manager's activities) can increase the cost of abandoning the goal.

When goals are simple, the necessary actions relatively routine and unexpected difficulties rare, motivation can lead to action. Managerial jobs, however, are rarely routine. Managers have multiple and often conflicting goals, many of which require persistent, long-term action. Their work context is fragmented, with high levels of uncertainty and opposition. Engaging willpower is a personal, almost intimate, process that cannot be triggered merely through rewards.

People need a vivid picture of the goal in order to activate their emotions and protect their intention through the action-taking phase. Vivid pictures help simplify long-term goals and make them tangible. Later, if doubts arise, the pictures stimulate perseverance. Senior executives can help managers create such pictures.

Instead of encouraging questions like "What's in it for me? Is it reasonable?" executives seeking true commitment must push people to ask, "What's the downside? Does it feel right? Do I really want it?" That way, managers engage their emotions, lead to deeper commitment.

When enlisting people for assignments, most executives paint rosy pictures, downplaying obstacles and highlighting benefits. Those who foster deep commitment often do the opposite. They point out the difficulties involved. This prevents superficial commitment.

The best way to build effective organizational commitment is to build it bottom-up, on the foundation of personal ownership of and commitment to specific initiatives and goals. In the world of mobile employees, frontline entrepreneurship and constant, unavoidable organizational restructuring, it is that kind of commitment that corporate leaders must develop if they want to build a bias for action in their companies.

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