Denise Kingsmill: How to fail successfully

Bouncing back after setbacks is a necessary life lesson, but failures like the banks' cannot be tolerated.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Failure. There is a lot of it about these days. Personal and public, individual and corporate, the stories of failure fill the business pages and spill over into the tabloids and gossip columns, especially when they involve a prominent banker or a corporate boss losing their job.

Years back, when I was a lawyer, I often acted in the kind of corporate dispute that was likely to end with blood on the carpet, usually that of the chief executive. It was interesting to observe the different approaches that people took to the prospect of losing their job. Some were furious and wanted to fight the perceived injustice of their sacking every inch of the way to the doors of the court. Many took it philosophically, calling me to negotiate maximum compensation only after putting in a call to their headhunter, whom they had kept warm in case of just this occurrence. Others were tearful, and I always kept a box of tissues strategically placed on my desk.

At least one could not accept the situation and didn't tell his wife what had happened. He left home at the usual time each day for months, but spent the day in the library sending off job applications. Eventually, he obtained another position and resumed his routine for real, without his family ever knowing of his crisis.

Many of my clients were high achievers who had rarely experienced failure. They'd succeeded at school, university and at work. They expected success, and failure was unthinkable. In many ways, they were motivated by a fear of failure and they would go to any lengths to avoid it. They rationalised away their own shortcomings, shifting blame for failure on to circumstances, other people or bad luck. These were often the ones who did not see it coming.

One man blithely went into a meeting with his chairman expecting to be promoted, only to find himself sacked. It was more than a year before he overcame the shock of failure and started again. Chastened by his experience and with therapeutic help, he developed a more balanced approach, recognising that failure can, if we learn from it, be constructive. He is today very successful in a completely different field and much more tolerant of mistakes, both his own and others'.

Winston Churchill, who experienced his fair share of personal failure, said: 'Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.' Perhaps we need to teach our children how to fail successfully in order to foster an understanding of how failure is an inevitable feature of life, essential to appreciating the nature of success.

Many who have lost their jobs in the current financial crisis have done so in the most public of circumstances. Public failure is, of course, the hardest; ask any leading sportsperson or politician. An atavistic pleasure, it seems, is to be found in seeing the once mighty brought low. In the case of bankers, it's as if the years of growth, spending and plenty must now, at the end of the cycle, be paid for in humiliation and public contempt for those deemed responsible for bringing the good years to such an abrupt end.

While I have little sympathy for those who, through arrogant mismanagement or careless risk-taking, have destroyed the jobs, savings and pensions of others, and although it's probably too early to speculate, it will be interesting to see if any of them rise phoenix-like from the ashes of their careers. There are precedents. John Profumo, a Conservative minister who was publicly disgraced in the Sixties, devoted his life thereafter to charity and died, rehabilitated and honoured, in 2006. In less dramatic circumstances and without the taint of disgrace, Steve Jobs of Apple lost out in a boardroom battle in 1985 and then kept a relatively low profile until brought back as the saviour of the company in 1997. Lord (Peter) Mandelson is, of course, the ultimate comeback kid, smoother and more accomplished with each reincarnation.

None of these examples, however, seems a likely scenario for today's discredited bankers, who have ignominiously gone to ground. They should hope to remain in obscurity, without the attention of the courts, regulators and angry litigants, at least until the collective memory of the financial crisis has faded.

In a corporate context, failure is more common than success: from Pan Am to Woolworths; from White Star Line, which built the Titanic, to Polaroid, a company that just didn't move with the times. Of the original FTSE-100 companies of 1984, only about 20 survive today. Big names like General Electric and the huge engineering conglomerate BTR have been replaced by companies such as Vodafone, Morrisons and others. It is the nature of business that there will be winners and losers.

The failure of our banking system is, however, of a different order. The collapse of a supermarket chain or construction company may be a disaster for its shareholders, employees and other stakeholders, but it has little impact on the rest of us. The tremors of bank failures, how-ever, are felt throughout the global economy. Banks are important in a way that no other kind of enterprise is. No economy can flourish without a safe, secure banking system.

The financial crisis has had a dramatic impact: economic activity has shrunk, unemployment is rocketing and government debt, for which we must all pay, is rising sharply. Failure on this scale cannot long be tolerated. More than 70 inquiries, investigations and reviews are being undertaken into the hows and whys of the crisis. We urgently need to learn from these how to avoid another failure and to create a successful, stable and shock-proof economic future.


Baroness Kingsmill CBE has been a non-executive director of plc, private, charitable, arts and government boards. She is a non-executive director of British Airways

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