We all need to experience failure says Peter Bingle

Enoch Powell once stated that all political careers end in failure. In recent times, the truth of this bold assertion was clear for all of us to see when Theresa May announced outside Downing Street that she was resigning. At the end of her statement her voice broke and a visibly distressed PM returned to the safety of Number 10.

In the days that followed there was much media debate about her failure. Was it inevitable in the sense that nobody would have been able to deliver Brexit? Or was the key factor her own personal weakness as a politician? There was even debate about whether or not it was appropriate to feel sorrow and sympathy for somebody who had clearly failed. Bizarre!

What cannot be disputed, however, is that by any objective or subjective measure Theresa May failed. History will not be kind to her. She has in reality already been forgotten (not forgiven) by her own party.

Why we fail

There are different kinds of failure. Some are tragic. Others are pathetic. Some are due to human failings. Others happen because of circumstances over which we have no control. And then there are heroic failures which become the stuff of legends. Many of our greatest historical figures were actually failures. They just failed in a suitably heroic way!

In our personal and professional lives we have all experienced failure. What is fascinating and telling is how individuals deal with it. Some people are broken by the experience. Others simply brush it aside. The wisest of us learn from the experience, change behaviour and then go on to succeed, better prepared than ever before.

Theresa May is an interesting example of failure. The longer she occupied Number 10 the more obvious it became to commentators, observers and her own MPs that she was a very ordinary politician with no vision or outstanding leadership qualities. Time and time again she failed, but instead of learning from the experience she simply ploughed on. She no doubt saw herself as heroic. In reality, she was just very stubborn. She normalised hopelessness in a quite extraordinary way. Never was there a person less suited or suitable to be PM.

Failure is transformational

What should the response be when someone you care about is failing? We will all have experienced a situation where a family friend or a work colleague is clearly failing. Do we allow them to fail in the hope that they learn from the experience or do we intervene? It is a difficult judgment call. People don’t like being told by others (no matter how close) that they are failing. Pride does come before a fall.

Looking back, it is clear that I have benefited hugely from the experience of failing. The experience is transformational and redemptive. Sometimes it is a necessity to know what you are and are not capable of. WS Gilbert once wrote : “If you go in, you’re sure to win ...” But we aren’t sure to win and the experience of losing is often key to winning next time.

In Tudor times being a failure often meant losing your head. We have come a long way, but the experience of modern failure can still be traumatic. The image of a red-eyed Margaret Thatcher being driven away from Downing Street is very powerful because failing is a very powerful experience. The trick is to make it a positive and transformative emotion. We all need to experience failure.

Written by Peter Bingle, founder of agency Terrapin Communications

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