Is Fear of Failure a Formula for Success? Ask Sara Blakely!

Ms. Blakely is the founder of Spanx. Many of us (especially men) may wonder what Spanx is. On the surface the company created the new “shapewear” undergarment category that Sara pioneered. She is also the hottest ticket on the media circuit.

But the real answer is that Sara Blakely and Spanx  are models for innovation, leadership and fearless determination that entrepreneurs and middle market company management must embrace in the 21st century if the US is going to maintain global economic leadership.

It is not that Spanx is going to save the economy. But Sara is a role model for what will.

Sara’s life is a crucible in which failure forms the tempered steel of success. Her philosophy, inherited from her father, is that if she fails to fail along the way, she is not pressing life’s envelope far enough. An early Business Week article  even identified “failure” as a critical ingredient in catalyzing her personal chemistry for success and a recent Forbes piece chronicles her journey to date.

Contrast Sara’s approach to innovation, which embraces failure with fearless humility, to that of middle market and even enterprise level companies’ innnovation policies and philosophies. Management’s first reaction to innovation is to consider risks surrounding intellectual property rights. Next is political posturing with respect to sponsorship of an idea based on judgments of success or failure regarding concepts that make it through product development cycles.

We know because we were at the point of innovation in companies like Mattel and Congoleum. Today we are representing an inventor with product prototypes and patents that have the capacity to change an entire major consumer product category. Half of the companies we approach with this idea direct us to the Legal department, while the rest trap us in round robin routines within Marketing or Engineering. I don’t advocate bypassing risk assessment, but am a disciple of the philosophy of balanced strategic acceptance of risk of failure with disproportionate opportunity for success.

Can you imagine a country with one hundred million more Saras? Forget that she has become one of the only female billionaires with no family wealth legacy. What would our society be and what would companies look like if we “Sara-tized”  personal growth based on hard work, getting into the mud of invention and leading by deeply believing in our freedom to fail?

What family traits need to be inculcated to enable people to believe failure as a path to success is acceptable?  How do we learn to live with fearless humility and match that experience with discipline to understand lessons learned, rather than instilling fear of failure or expecting reward for mediocrity? What would government policies look like that encourage people to work hard as a way to have fun and build wealth and fundamentally contribute to society? How different would we be as individual leaders, friends, and spouses if we were “Sara-tized”?

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