Viceroy: Fuel The Fire, Not The Fear

Is it possible to succeed if you’re not willing to risk failure?

Recently the fear of losing a job has led people to set aside their natural inclination to take chances. Even those with great track records are looking over their shoulders nervously. So should they believe a boss who tells them to be bold and dare to fail—who says “the only failure is not daring to try”?

I’ll tell you the answer, Yes, they should.

During the big boom, management gurus confidently challenged orthodox ideas of success and failure. They could afford to. You’ve heard the old adage that success is falling down seven times and getting up eight times. Or how Thomas Edison designed thousands of light bulbs before he finally hit on one that worked.

Remember SonyBetamax? All major corporations make occasional missteps that ultimately lead to breakthroughs or at least fresh insight into the consumer appetite. Steve Jobs made a huge leap when he left his own groundbreaking company over an in-house squabble. But he went on to found Pixar, and later returned toApple, taking the reins as CEO.

Used to, we heard motivational stories and read bold words and felt fired up. Bankruptcies, product flops and a few bad decisions were battle scars of the brave—proof of courage and resilience, like Rocky or Martha Stewart. A can-do mentality is the American way. Other nations have long admired us for it.

Yet suddenly sticking one’s neck out has gone out of style. When the newscasters mention failure, it’s no longer the opener for a comeback story, it’s just a catalog of woes—the failure of financial regulators, the auto industry, schools, health care, drug policy, newspapers, to name but a few.

Dare we make a wrong move lest the whole thing crumble? What happens if we take a risk and it doesn’t pay off?

The more pressing question is, what happens if we don’t?

We have to adapt and innovate. No matter what business or sector (government, public service, health care, education, consumer products), it’s time to decide how to move forward: to maintain status quo, or get bold. Either way, we risk. The key difference is in the direction, the mind-set and the energy. Playing it safe may seem the easy way to muddle through, but it doesn’t speak to the future, and it doesn’t inspire staffers or clients.

Innovation doesn’t always have to mean shelling out cash. Try creative thinking and inventive use of existing and emerging resources.

Last week Porter Novelli teamed up with PepsiCo and some social media specialists for a tweetup about the global trends affecting consumer behavior right now. It was an open-ended, uncensored, anything-goes online conversation. The risks? What if no one participated? What if it turned into a self-indulgent gossip shop, a waste of time? What if it became populated with haters? All in all, it was a pretty risky initiative. But in the end, hundreds participated. The results weren’t absolutely perfect—the online world is populated with humans and we allow for some trip-ups—but the energy was great, and the substantial conversations and insightful comments gave us food for thought and plenty of learning for future initiatives.

For months now too many people have been scared stiff—braced for the worst. It’s the dynamic, determined people who see the turbulence as the ideal time to make their move that will prove their mettle. As Warren Buffettput it, “Be bold when others are fearful.”

Of course there’s a big difference between being bold and being foolhardy; as leaders of business we must exercise cool judgment. As leaders of business we also know that if you want to win big, you have to move big.

Learning is the key. Success without learning is failure in disguise. Failure without learning is plain stupidity.

If we’re really going to demand that our employees and managers stay creative and take calculated risks, we have to convince them that they won’t be undercut if they fail, provided they learn from the experience.

We have to fuel the fire, not the fear.


Anthony Viceroy, President of Global Operations, Porter Novelli