Can David Beckham teach you about Failure and Leadership?
By Rachel Stone
I have most definitely discovered my favourite and most helpful leadership book, Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed. Here is a crucial nugget to take your leadership forward from a celebrity figure.
Beckham reacted badly to being provoked by Diego Simeone, which resulted in the UK rising star being sent off in front of 20 million fans watching the game. It was 30th June 1998. He was 23. His first World Cup, the crucial knockout match against Argentina for a place in the quarter finals. England lost the game and Beckham was hated. He need security guards afterwards. He received bullets in the post. Many pundits said it could end his career. How could he come back from that?
They didn’t know the whole story about Beckham and his relationship with failure.
Leadership and great achievers must love failure. Let me explain.
Beckham was six when he started to learn about failure and what it taught him. He spent three years practising “keepy-uppies” to hone his ball control skills. At first, he could manage 50 touches of the ball, aged six. By the age of nine he could manage a record-breaking 2003 touches without losing control. He practised every available moment. Beckham knew that each failure was an opportunity to learn. He stuck at it and became a master of that part of his craft.
He then turned his attention and discipline to free kicks. His dad reflects that he must have seen his son take at least 50,000 free kicks in the park. He failed until he got it. He understood failure as the key to learning to improve. He continued this way.
The next big game straight after Beckham was sent off in 1998 he had to block out the mistake. He had learnt from it. He wanted to improve and he most definitely bounced back after it. He became quite a good footballer!
Beckham could be said to have a Growth Mindset.
In 2010 Jason Moser, a psychologist at Michigan State University, carried out one of many studies to try to understand the human brain and its response to failure. Using an electroencephalography (EEG) cap, and electrodes to measure voltage fluctuations in the brain, Moser wanted to see what was happening at a neural level when mistakes are made.
He investigated two brain signals, one being the Error Related Negativity (ERN) coming from the part of the brain which helps to regulate attention. It’s largely involuntary. The other being Error Positivity (Pe) which comes from a different part of the brain and is linked to heightened awareness and comes when we focus on mistakes.
From previous studies, Moser understood that people tend to learn more quickly when their brains show a larger ERN signal and a steady Pe.
To build on research he used a group of participants, which he had organised into two groups. The first group had responded to a questionnaire showing that they tended to have a Fixed Mindset – i.e. they believed things such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence and you can’t really do much about it”.
The other group had responded to the questionnaire showing they had a Growth Mindset. They believed that you can work on being smart through persistence and dedication.
The questionnaire polarised the respondents and overcame the general view that most people hold which is that success is based on a combination of talent and practice.
Moser’s experiment measured electrical activity in the brain as participants in the two groups carried out tasks and occasionally made mistakes.
The Fixed and Growth Mindset groups provided significantly different results for the Pe reading. Some readings were three times higher. Growth Mindset participants paid much more attention to their mistakes and this correlated with improved performance.
Getting involved with your mistakes is a great way to improve performance. The results from Moser’s experiment discussed in Syed’s book is just a small part of research taking place into the brain and peak performance.
Syed’s book tells us in detail about the need to learn from failure in a nut shell. “When we engage with our errors we improve”.
Leaders need to take this on board in their organisational culture. There is no learning when blame prevails. People who think about their errors, engage with them, discuss them, own them, can reflect and learn from them to improve their performance. People will not do this is they are afraid to admit mistakes.
A culture of learning can be created when healthy discussion can take place around what goes wrong. Successful companies understand this and embed a learning culture as opposed to a blame culture. The work of Carole Dweck is outlined in Syed’s book around the benefits of a Growth Mindset in a workforce. More honesty and collaboration are generated which minimises the drawbacks of fear of failure.
Innovation comes from solving problems. Being scared dampens creativity. Creativity and Growth Mindsets are linked. In the modern economy being able to adapt is key.
There is so much in Syed’s book about the need to engage with failure. I would go as far as to say that leaders need to love failure so that they can build a culture of learning from it. This enables improvements to take place at every opportunity.
Beckham is one of many successful people living this way. He might not be the most obvious person to teach you about how to be an excellent leader, but he certainly understands excellence and learning.
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