When “Failure Is Not an Option”

Some years ago I ran into the director Ron Howard at our local Starbucks. I said hello and told him how much I enjoyed the movie “Apollo 13,” which, in case you didn’t know, he directed.

“Apollo 13” is a remarkable movie. It captures the story of one of NASA’s finest moments, when the NASA team’s extraordinary willpower, energy and creativity snatched the Apollo 13 crew from the jaws of death after an electrical malfunction impaired the spacecraft’s guidance and oxygen systems. Gene Kranz, flight director for the Apollo 13 mission, led the rescue effort. During one of the movie’s best moments, Kranz (played by actor Ed Harris) rallies the troops and declares with resolve that “failure is not an option.”

The “failure is not an option” mindset has been burned into the collective psyche of Americans. You may not hear that exact phrase, but if you listen and observe closely, you’ll hear and see that this mindset is pervasive. It may be reflected by managers in a variety of settings from corporate suites, where accountants meet with CEOs to make decisions about financial statement reporting, to research departments, where scientists review research findings to secure important regulatory approvals, to the front lines, where sales people labor to meet monthly goals.

Unfortunately, the phrase and thinking has had unintended consequences. If you work at a nuclear power plant or on a surgical team, I can understand why this mindset makes sense. In these high-risk settings where human lives are on the line, the typical approach is to anticipate failure scenarios and have back-up plans in place to address them. The problem is that in most settings, the “failure is not an option” mindset is taken too far and ends up doing more damage than good.

The Challenger Space Shuttle accident occurred 28 years ago this week. The accident investigation revealed that an engineer had concerns but was discouraged from voicing them because “failure was not an option” when it came to meeting the launch schedule. The engineer’s concern turned out to be valid. Because the issue was not raised and addressed, malfunction occurred and caused the accident. Too often, when “failure is not an option,” cutting corners is.

How many athletes decided “failure is not an option” when they took illegal performance-enhancing drugs?

How many people on Wall Street decided “failure is not an option” when they cut corners and put bad mortgage loans in securities portfolios, leading to the credit crisis?

The issue here, as I see it, is that we need to be careful about how we define success and failure, winners and losers. John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, said something wise about this. Wooden defined winners as individuals who have the self-satisfaction that comes from giving their very best effort without resorting to immoral means. He said individuals can win competitions and not be winners if they didn’t give their all or if they did what they knew isn’t right. Likewise, Wooden said you can be a winner and not win a competition. Why would he say this?

During Wooden’s youth he witnessed his father Joshua’s extraordinary effort to save the family farm during the Depression. Although the Wooden family lost their farm, young John saw his father maintain his dignity and move on to something else. In John’s eyes, if there was ever a winner in life, it was his dad. The farm was lost due to factors beyond Joshua Wooden’s control. John Wooden must have given this a lot of thought. He learned from the experience that all we can control is our own level of effort and that’s what makes a winner. He learned to focus on his own effort and not to obsess about the results. Over time, this produces superior results.

Later Wooden became a basketball coach at Indiana State. When his team qualified for the post-season tournament during the 1946-47 season, the nation’s college basketball authorities wouldn’t allow Clarence Walker, the team’s only African-American player, to participate. In response, Wooden refused to play. He knew he could never be a winner if it meant humiliating one of his players.

The next year Wooden’s team qualified again and this time the college basketball authorities allowed Wooden to bring Clarence. Wooden’s team went all the way to the finals where it lost to Louisville. Though he didn’t win the tournament in a literal sense, it’s difficult to imagine a bigger winner coming out of that tournament than Wooden. He was the man who faced down the evil of prejudice and, as a result, opened up post-season college basketball to African-American players. He went on to become one of the most respected coaches of any sport and his teams achieved one of the best records in sports history (ten national championships and four perfect seasons).

There’s a lesson in this. If we get so desperate that we are willing to resort to immoral means in order to win and be thought of as a winner, we had better remember what a real winner, like John Wooden, looks like. If we forget what a real winner is, we will eventually pay the price. There’s no lasting satisfaction in becoming a winner by illegitimate means. An illegitimate winner knows the truth. And eventually, people around him will figure it out too.

I keep a book about John Wooden’s life and philosophy in my car so that if I run into Ron Howard at Starbucks again, I can pass it along to him. It could be his next big movie.

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