As Jen-Hsun Huang, CEO of Nvidia, stated in a recent interview, “it’s okay to try, and if it doesn’t work, learn from it, adjust and keep failing forward. And if you just fail forward all the time—learn, fail, learn, fail, learn, fail—but every single time you’re making it better and better, before you know it you’re a great company.” What’s the message? Successfully leading a business is not about just having successes, it is about whether with each initiative/action—no matter the judgment on the outcome—you move forward. That is to say, whether you are making progress.
The viability of the business is dependent upon learning, both at the individual and collective level. Both require an organizational culture that supports and promotes learning. Such a culture is one where intellectual honesty is a behavior guiding value. Jen-Hsun believes that without it “you can’t have a culture that will tolerate failure.” Tolerating failure doesn’t mean that everyone should fail it means you recognize failure as an opportunity to learn. Failure can be valuable if you are willing to openly acknowledge and learn from it.
Managers/leaders have a role in facilitating the emergence of such a culture. The role of a manager/leader is to model the behavior he/she wishes to observe throughout the organization. In other words, embody the values and corresponding behaviors that are essential to learning, individually and collectively.
Though this has been said before by many the (essential) meaning in this context is ‘be an authentic unceasing learner’. Being authentic requires one to be a person not a position. Specifically, be a person who is passionate about the work of the organization and who cares about the people in the organization. The message here is, open your heart as well as your mind.
Unceasing learners have an open and inquisitive mind. They take on a beginner’s mind, not that of the expert, allowing space for taking in all perspectives. They don’t only acknowledge those perspectives that align with the ideas they have, but willingly pursue and explore multiple perspectives. This means they lead by asking questions, not by providing answers. As Jen-Hsun explains, “there is no way I can be as deep in all areas as the people on my management team, nor is it important.” Moreover, the more the questions are informed by an understanding of the underlying dynamics of the system, the more insightful and value-added will be the questions. As Jen-Hsun said, as a CEO ‘you bring a unique perspective.” However, the better leader will always understand that it is not the only perspective.