I was working with an executive coaching client recently, helping him to prepare to interview and select a key new member of his leadership team. Harold is president and CEO of a large company, and as a result of working “on” the business instead of “within” the business, felt he was rusty in his interviewing skills. We had worked closely together in creating this opportunity, carefully designing the role, expectations, qualifications, and a focus on what would make this person successful. But, it’s not unusual for senior executives who are comfortable with their shortcomings to admit they need help with something that used to be so natural for them years or decades earlier.

In our previous meeting I had given him specific homework regarding how he might evaluate, assess, and make his decision. During this meeting, he indicated he would have only one question during the interview. “After all” he said, “this candidate has been poked, investigated, and interviewed by so many insightful people already. What more do I have to ask relative to his resume, experience, and why he thinks he would be successful?” “One question” I responded? I was intrigued.  “What are you looking for with just one question?”

Harold indicated he wanted to “try out his question” in a role-playing format. I readily agreed. It’s a great way to not only test something but to also dig deeper into each others relationships. Okay Harold said, you are the candidate, and I am Harold, president and CEO.  “Matter of fact, you Steve, are the candidate.  Answer this as yourself.”

Harold began, “My question is; tell me about a competition you participated in. It doesn’t matter to me if you won or lost, but I’d like to know how it affected you later in life.”

I’m typically not at a loss for words. Friends will call me anything from conversant to chatty and always anxious to give my unapologetic opinion. But this time my words fell to silence. I wasn’t stumped for an answer, I was merely trying to pick and choose from the many competitions I had been part of, and the stories I would have to tell. Since we were “real life” role-playing, I had to avoid stories I had already told Harold, and enlighten him with something new.

Harold, I began; I love competition. I’m pleased you aren’t interested if I won or lost, because many times I challenge myself, giving myself the freedom to fail. While I strive to succeed, and don’t take losing lightly, I don’t feel it important to win at all costs. Many times the greatest lessons are learned when we don’t finish 1st.

I am the son of a wonderful musician. So at an early age I began my studies of music. An observer might have labeled me a very good bass player at a young age. At age 14, I was invited to join the senior high school jazz band and combo. This was quite an honor in itself, but I seemed to take it in stride. Some of the musicians 4 to 5 years my senior, have since moved on to successful music careers. I enjoyed the challenge, and while I wish to be more humble, I do understand I played quite well.

The following year I came back for auditions. There was another student, a senior cellist who decided he to wanted to be in the jazz band, and decided to cross over to bass. I was faced with very stiff competition. Fast forwarding into the future we find my competitor Craig, as the principal bassist with a national Symphony Orchestra. My competition was indeed steep. But I practiced, and I worked at it and gained confidence that I would win the audition.

I practiced so hard that I worked through the calluses to the point my fingers had open bloody sores. On the day of the audition I wrapped my fingers tightly with athletic tape knowing I would need to work through the pain beneath the bandages. Part way through the audition song, a combination of sweaty fingers and aggressive playing lead to the bandages falling away, leaving blood stained strings when the song was finished. Understandably, the 2nd half of the song did not go well, and I lost the audition.

I was crushed. It was the 1st time I experienced failure at this level. And, I had worked hard, I was perhaps the better bassist that year, and I deserve to win. It wasn’t fair to lose on a medical condition beyond my control. But I did lose. This black mark on my early musical career began to haunt me.

Coincidentally, at the same time, I was participating in a Boy Scout troop sponsored by my church. During one of our meetings, the minister gave us a presentation on his interpretation of GRACE. I walked away realizing that not only was I fortunate enough to have been given many wonderful gifts by God, but how I would apply them, how I would use them, and where they would take me, was a plan that had not been written by me. It was at that moment I realized losing that audition was part of the plan that had been written for me. I needed to move on and learn from my 1st major failure in life.  I found the beginnings of my freedom to fail.

This freedom to fail helped me realize the application of the Golden rule. I learned (even if it might bring personal compromise, or even failure,) the importance of “doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do”, and not because of the personal reward or gratitude I might gain.

Going back to my Boy Scout experience, I realized I had been working my way up the ladder to the ultimate goal of every Boy Scout, as the Eagle award. It seemed odd to me that while scouting was teaching us to act as good human beings, because it is the right thing to do, that we would need to be rewarded for doing so.

Not always known as the conformist, I decided to rebel against the scouting system. I decided I would pursue my eagle scout award, but along the way I refused every award, and every merit badge, from that day forward.

Later that year I went to a summer Scout Leadership Camp by invitation. I was the only non-Eagle Scout in attendance. It was apparent from the beginning that I would be looked down upon by other scouts and adult leaders. They questioned why I would be invited when I had not achieved Eagle status. At the end of the two-week camp, I found my name at the top of the class in scores. And subsequently, was voted by the rest of the campers as the outstanding leader.

 So Harold you might say, “so what Steve”?

So what, I asked out loud? At an early age I competed and lost, where the easy bet was for me to win. It hurt, as a matter of fact it hurt for a long time. In my search to ease the pain, I found the meaning of GRACE, and I discovered the Golden Rule. I developed a personal mantra that I will “do the right thing because it is the right thing”.  My career advanced and I began to lead teams.  While I was successful at hiring wonderful people, and leading them with passion, helping them to “do the right thing because it simply is the right thing” may have been my most successful accomplishment as a leader of others.


            1. Who leads by learning from failure?
            2. What competition has been meaningful to you?
            3. Where did you find a source for answering failure?
            4. When will you realize, winning is not everything?
            5. How will you begin to transform to the golden rule?


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