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  • Writer's pictureJaap Bosman

In fear of failure

I guess all of you are familiar with the now infamous Elizabet Holmes, founder and former CEO of Theranos. In 2014, Ms. Holmes, then 30 years old, was on top of the world. Theranos was valued at $9bn. With a few drops of blood, Theranos promised that its Edison test could detect conditions such as cancer and diabetes quickly without the hassle of needles. Bigwigs from Henry Kissinger to general James Mattis sat on the board.

But by 2015, the fabric unraveled, and Elizabeth Holmes was exposed as a fake. The technology she touted didn't work at all, and by 2018 the company she founded had collapsed.

Right now Ms. Holmes, now 37, stands trial and faces up to 20 years in prison if found guilty of the 12 charges of fraud against her. Lance Wade, a partner at the Washington law firm Williams & Connolly, is the lead lawyer for Holmes. During the trial’s opening statements on Wednesday 8 September, he argued that “Failure is not a Crime” and with that he has a valid point: there is no disgrace in failing.

The fragile Ego

In life there is no such thing as zero-risk. In whatever we do, there will always be risks. Even if we do nothing, there is risk. Each individual will have their own level of risk acceptance that can be split-up into four distinct domains: personal economical risks, risk to people that are close to us, physical personal risks, and reputational personal risks.

"Often our egos are standing in the way of greatness. Not because the ego is too strong, but too fragile"

The risk to suffer a financial loss is generally more acceptable than endangering the ones that are close to you. The risk of personal injury also has a high threshold as many have an unhealthy lifestyle and navigate traffic. More vulnerable than our body is our ego. Some would rather lose a limb than widely be seen as a failure. Perhaps we need personal recognition more than anything else in life. Just look at the concept of ‘losing face’. In rare and extreme cases people rather commit suicide than publicly losing face. Tragically, I know an example of a Managing Partner who did just that.

Failure is an option, not trying is not

The fear of failing is closely connected to the fear of losing face. Our fragile egos cannot cope with the prospect of having to admit that we did not succeed. Or even worse being publicly mocked for our failure. We rather do nothing at all.

I would say such sentiments are stronger among lawyers than in the rest of the population. Lawyers are risk adverse by nature. Their profession forces them to focus heavily on potential downsides and pitfalls, rather than on opportunities. As a consequence it can become very hard to convince lawyers to venture out into the unknown.

This hesitance will be manifest on many different levels. Propose to organize a high-level event for CEO’s and board members and immediate fear will be that many will not show up and that the ones who do will therefor think it is a total failure. As a consequence no event is organized.

Try to convince partners to improve the quality of their practice and they will fear that if they do not succeed in attracting better clients and mandates, they will have lost part of their existing workbook and end up loosing money or even being kicked out of the firm.

The problem is that not doing something is in itself also an act. By not acting, one does not avoid risks, but on the contrary introduce new risks that are beyond control. If the world does not act against climate change, the climate will act against us. Not trying something, out of the fear of failure, could turn out to be a costly mistake.

If you do what you did, you get what you got.

We are in the business of helping law firms to improve their position in the market. Invariably this entails change. Unless something changes, everything will remain the same at best. Preferably change is fueled by ambition. Ambition to grow. Grow as a lawyer, be the best law firm, get the best clients, win the best mandates.

It is here were we immediately run into a problem. Ambition inherently comes with the risk of failure. All change comes with the risk of failure. In the face of the ever so slight possibility of failure, partners back-out. That is one of the main reasons (there are others!) why so often a brilliant strategy never gets executed and implemented. What if we fail…

Bolster your egos

Our fragile egos are firmly standing in the way of realizing our full potential. If only we did all those things that we didn’t do because we were so afraid of possible failing. Failure is not a crime, not trying is.

TGO Consulting has defined 7 Core Lawyer Development Dimensions©. Confidence is one of them. For any law firm that strives to improve its market position, time spent on developing their lawyers’ confidence is time well invested. Egos should become less fragile and personalities more robust. No partner should be blown away by negative comments from others. Adversity should be the fuel that drives determination.

As Nietzsche put it: "Was uns nicht umbringt, macht uns stärker" (what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger)


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