Preparing To Fail

Ben Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” No leader worth their weight in annual reports would fail to prepare, right? Most of us spend a significant portion of our time in one form of preparation/planning or another. I heard a slightly different take on an old story recently—the story about King David and the temple—that made me think about a way many leaders actually prepare to fail.

David had traveled a rough and long road to get where he was. He spent time in the desert (literally) and had to fight for his life (also literally) to finally arrive in the position of leadership he enjoyed. He built a big house in the capital city and settled in. That’s when he had an idea. A vision. A really big one. He wanted to build a temple for the Lord.

He shared his plan with his trusted advisor, Nathan, who initially told him it was a great idea. Later, however, Nathan heard from the Lord that David wasn’t the guy to build the temple; his son, Solomon, was. Nathan relayed the new info to David who actually took it pretty well. Instead of being irritated or upset about not getting to see his vision to completion, he did something all leaders should do. He set up the next leader to succeed at completing his vision.

If you don’t know the story, David’s prep wasn’t minimal. He completed the plans, gathered materials, and provided trained and skilled workers for the job. The total cost of the temple could have been $3 billion in today’s dollars. The gold alone that David collected was worth $900 million. In other words, he gave Solomon everything he needed to carry on with the vision David had.

There are too many stories to count about organizations that are led by charismatic founders who have great vision but fail to prepare and equip others to carry that vision forward. When the leader exits, sometimes suddenly, the organization falls. By failing to plan for the inevitable—their exit—they end up planning to fail.

It begs the question, “Why?” While the reasons a leader would fail to plan for their exit might be complex, they can be reduced to two. Either they don’t know how, or don’t believe they need to. Let’s take the second one first…

Leaders struggle with ego. It is hard to accept that someone else may be the one to actualize “my” vision. We have plenty of excellent reasons why no one else can do what we can. We tend to ignore the reality that we may be unable to do the work for too many reasons to count. Mostly, we just want to be in the lead, and working to make someone else successful in the lead doesn’t feel great.

Well, get over it. You are finite and expendable. You will not live forever, or maybe not even another day. You may have great ideas, even world changing ones, but without others to continue the work, your vision will die with you. So, embrace the reality that you must prepare for your exit, and get busy.

And what if we don’t know how to plan for our inevitable exit…

No leader comes to the table with a completely formed vision. Through interactions and collaboration, our initial insights become fully formed into a more concise and actionable vision. It is around that time that some leaders have selective amnesia and forget how they got there. Don’t. Continue (or start) to invite input and feedback and use it as both a way to improve the vision and a method to pass ownership of that vision to the team.

You may understand how the forest is created by the trees, but, if all you talk about is the forest, your team won’t understand the trees. High level vision is easier to communicate than the details of how that vision plays out in a million decisions every day. Leaders must spend time explaining how the trees play into the forest. We need to tell the team how we see the vision applied, not so they can do exactly what we do, but so they can learn to do it their way.

Don’t be stingy. Great leaders give the building materials they are capable of collecting to the people they lead. Materials like education, experience, resources, and access. Like David, we should be shoving a huge pile of stuff across the desk into the laps of our successors. Keeping anything for ourselves is selfish and threatens to end our vision when we come to our “end.”

Finally, as cliché as it is, more is caught than taught. People must see you living the principles of your vision. Every action and moment should relate to the vision. Warren Bennis said, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.” The first translation must be into the reality of your own life.

I used to worry that I would die with significant parts of my vision undone. I don’t worry about that anymore. It will happen. What I spend time thinking about now is how I am going to engage the next generation of leaders so they can take the things we have started and add to them. I want to be a leader that plans on my own failure and therefore invests in the future. You will leave the work unfinished. Planning on that and preparing for it is leadership, and it is the Bison Way.