There’s no success like failure

by Paul Miller

07 June 2018

After 34 years working full time in the NHS I started a new career in 2018 as non-executive director in Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust. This has given me the opportunity to spend more time on my passion for coaching and training. My career change has also given me more time to reflect on the sometimes fine line between success and failure and how senior leaders in the NHS are increasingly spending more time on the “wrong side of that line”.

The recent NHSI “Performance of the NHS provider sector for the year ended 31st March 2018” provides a clear message to all of us how challenging things are and how many of us are technically failing;

  1. A&E 4-hour performance 85%, compared to 86.7% the year before
  2. £960m deficit, which was £464m above the target for 2017/18

My life experiences and coaching training have taught me the importance of reflecting on failure and extracting as much positive learning as I can from it. Therefore, in this short blog I will outline two useful things I have come across.

Jonathan Edwards world record triple jumper – In 1995 he became the first man to jump 60 feet and he still holds that world record to this day. However, at the World Championships in 1999 in Seville he had a bad day, because he kept overstepping the take off board and recording no jumps. He finally managed a couple of jumps and came third, which for him was a significant failure. However, Jonathan is a thinker and he reflected on what went wrong that day and the reason was simple. “He discovered that the new shoes he wore were 1 cm shorter than the previous pair. Since his run up to the board was measured in foot-to-foot mini paces it went completely awry”. From that day he measured his run up with a tap measure and he went on to win Olympic gold in Sydney in 2000.

As the failure was down to his shoes, he retained his confidence in his own ability to perform and win gold. This is important as self-doubt and negative emotions hinder performance, whether you are an Olympic athlete or an NHS leader.

Learning from project failure – There is a very good article in the Journal of Management Studies (September 2009) by Dean A. Shepherd and Melissa S. Cardon, which provides a useful emotion framework to explain variance in learning from project failure. Whilst this article is academic, the framework is relatively simple;

  1. Project failure leads to a decrease in psychological well-being, which in turn leads to negative emotions.
  2. Negative emotions interfere with an individual’s ability to learn.
  3. Left unchecked this can lead to a downward spiral of failure as learning is important in getting it right next time.
  4. However, if an individual has self-compassion i.e. self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness, the lesser the impact negative emotion will have on their ability to learn from failure.
  5. Finally those individuals with greater self-compassion will also face fewer obstacles to their motivation to try again.

Now I know what you are thinking. ‘Do I need to read a 20-page American academic research paper to “stop beating myself up?” But if there is anything I have learnt through my career in the NHS and as a coach is that we are all very good at “beating ourselves up” and we often need help to stop.

Which brings me to my final point, which is the importance of coaching to help you reflect, maintain high levels of emotional wellbeing and above all to learn. These are all things that underpin high levels of performance. And who knows… one day we may even start winning again. Because as Bob Dylan once wrote “she knows there’s no success like failure, and that failure’s no success at all”.

To find out more about coaching contact Lily on or call her on 0117 938 8320.

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