The Enigma of Failure: Jim Collins, How the Mighty Fall – 1

I enjoy business books.

Even though I’ve been in campus ministry and out of the for profit sector for six years now, I still think much about my time spent at Intergrated Project Management Company as hugely formative, and realized the power a great company can have on both individuals and communities. The Wall Street Journal seems to agree as well, naming IPM as one of the top 15 small workplaces in the country last year.

It was there when I was first introduced to Jim Collins, and his two business classics: Built to Last, a book primarily based on how enduring companies are built, and Good to Great, a response born out of a question from Collins’ friend who didn’t know how to take his good company and help it become great.  Jim Collins has spent a lot of time talking about success.

Until now.  In How the Mighty Fall, Collins turns to the dark side and analyzes how those companies that had all the advantages fell from the top.  And it isn’t pretty – it’s like analyzing a train wreck.

How the Mighty Fall is going to be criticized pretty heavily by several folks. People will likely talk about how it doesn’t have the same rigor as the other books, and they may be right.  They’ll probably say that Collins had an idea and sought to prooftext under the guise of research in order to align with his works in Good to Great and Built to Last.

Whatever.  They may be right, but I think there is something else that is deeper than people’s criticism that underlies their motivation: America has an aversion to failure.

We are scared of it.  We love winners – when the US Olympic Basketball Team lost for the first time, which was inevitable, the players felt like they let the country down.

How the Mighty Fall is an analysis of tragedy. Perhaps it’s just the dark side of me, but I kinda like looking and analyzing failure.  I remember my freshman year of college having dinner with one of the lead engineers in the Challenger Shuttle explosion, and hearing his seething anger combined with intense sorrow over what had happened. It shook him to the core. It shook me, a 17 year old freshman, in a way that I’m still not sure if I understand.

Even (and especially) in my own life, I’ve learned more from my failures than any of my successes. An old high school friend that I’d lost track of long ago facebook messaged me and asked me about being successful. I laughed out loud when I read the message.

I think several people can look at me on the outside and think I’m successful – and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wanted to be considered successful. But I truly think I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded. I hide failure well – but I can point to at least one epic fail I’ve had in school, in business, in ministry, in relationships, in family, in church, etc.

It’s so much so that when I speak openly about failure, people have this strong need to correct me that I didn’t fail because I learned from it. That’s true – but it’s like saying that you prefer to buy a pre-owned car rather than a used car.  A subtle change in terminology doesn’t change the fact that someone else used the car before you. Similarly, a subtle change in terminology doesn’t change the fact that I really screwed up.

Failure used to scare me – a lot. I still don’t like it, but more than ever I believe failure has been the genesis of my growth. Why? To quote Rich Lamb, “Grace is only possible past the limits of our success.”  And our limits of success are discovered only through experience. Experiencing failure. We can only experience epic grace when we’ve epically failed – or, as Jesus said, “she has loved much because she has been forgiven much.”

I only really understand grace through entering failure.

The biblical characters who haunt me most are Saul (the tragic Old Testament King) and Judas (the disciple who betrayed Jesus). Both were filled with the presence of God, either being filled with the Holy Spirit or being with Jesus. Why did they fail? They were more preoccupied with the perception of others view of their success and managing their images than true obedience to what God called them.

I’m going to be looking at each of Jim Collins stages of destruction of a company – both looking at what Collins says regarding business, but apply it to other areas – in ministry, and in our own lives with God.

From How the Mighty Fall, by Jim Collins

From How the Mighty Fall, by Jim Collins

Why? Because the exposing the dark side for what it truly is allows for us to strip it of it’s power. Evil that presents itself clearly as evil is so easy to detect. We watch films and hear the darker musical score and know evil’s coming. Life isn’t the movies – real evil doesn’t have a soundtrack.

The power of evil comes through masquerading as goodness. The best lies aren’t the bold face ones – it’s subtle deceit that twists the truth and leaves us in a place that we never wanted to be, wondering how we got there.

We are afraid of failure because we’re afraid of being exposed – that what we be seen for what we really are.  Shame and failure are linked. Fear of failure is a lie that keeps us from really knowing that we can be loved unconditionally. Exposing failure for what it is allows us to see more than we could ever dream – but it requires a rigorous assessment of what’s really there without dressing it up.

So, let the failure stripshow begin.

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