When Failure Is Everything
In game four of the 1997 ALCS playoffs, Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees surrendered a game-winning home run to Cleveland’s Sandy Alomar. Many believed that home run was pivotal in the series in which New York ultimately lost in five games. Years later Rivera’s failure to deliver proved equally critical to his career, and not in the way many would have expected. Joe Torre, the Yankees’ manager at the time, remarked how Alomar’s home run “was a turning point for Rivera, not just because he became more determined, but because he dismissed it.” Rivera’s teammate and celebrated shortstop, Derek Jeter, epitomized baseball as a “game of failure.” Jeter’s statement offers his, and likely Rivera’s, general perspective of the sport. It provides a glimpse into a mindset by which his talent crystalized into a Hall of Fame career. Jeter compartmentalized setbacks. In so doing, he disallowed expected failures to dictate the overall narrative.
There has always been a mythologized and veiled obscurity about the origin of the name of the American Rock Band, Pearl Jam. The band name was either 1) a moniker for the NBA point guard, Mookie Blaylock, which was the band’s name before they realized they could not trademark it, 2) a reference to lead guitarist Eddie Vedder’s grandmother’s peyote jam, or 3) bassist Jeff Ament’s recollection of a 15-minute Neil Young and Crazy Horse “jam” session at Nassau Coliseum. My favorite reason for the band name was given in an early interview. It was an allegory to the metamorphosis of a pearl, the rare calcium carbonate composition treasured for centuries. Pearls are formed by oysters, but not for aesthetic reasons. It is the end-product of an oyster’s natural reaction to an irritant created as the creature envelops the grain of sand in layers of nacre. Thus, a pearl evolves from tension and disharmony. Good, inspirational things like great music can emerge from a place that was once bleak and hopeless.
Musicians can draw inspiration from dire circumstances and sad life experiences to produce lyrics and music, which bring hope and meaning when performed. Baseball players must regularly manage failure if they are to succeed. A player who only fails 70 percent of the time over a career is often inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Winston Churchill, one of the most important figures in history, believed an “optimist sees an opportunity in every difficulty.” Like a musician, athlete, or statesman, what can a court manager learn from setbacks? How can managing conflict enlighten us about someone’s character? How can failure help managers identify their own strengths and weaknesses?
I look forward to my discussions with Toni, but I was particularly eager to see her on this Friday afternoon after she left me hanging a few weeks ago about an all-important second thing that is telling of one’s character. I got to Harper’s Crab Shack before she arrived, and I ordered us a couple signature crab cake BLTs with the Hollandaise sauce on the side. Toni and I always paired it with a kettle of organic Japanese Bancha green tea with all the caffeine kick of a cup of coffee. Toni pulled into one of the parking spaces in front of the establishment. She waved to me and put her car in park. When she sat down at the table, the waiter delivered our tea.
“You couldn’t have planned this more perfectly if you tried,” I said.
“No kidding,” Toni replied. “Bancha?”
“So, am I late, or are you early?” Toni settled back and took a sip of tea.
“You’re right on time, as usual.”
“Did you order already?”
“Way ahead of you, but only in that regard.”
“That’s cute,” she said.
I blew steam across my teacup. “Is your house back in order, or is the family still enjoying the accommodations at Hotel Toni?”
“Ha! No. They left on Tuesday, but it doesn’t take long to get used to the hustle and bustle of managing a full house again. We had some good discussions while they were here. It was nice having them around.”
“Lots of talk about the good ole days?”
“I don’t look at it that way. The past is the past. Only hold on to the important stuff. The best is yet to come.”
“You never cease to amaze me how wise you are.”
“Oh, you’re just like me. I’ve just had more time than you to learn from all my mistakes.”
I grinned big. “Thank you for the vote of confidence.”
“So, how did you make out with that new hire? Any keepers?”
“Yes. That’s what I wanted to discuss with you when I was left in suspense after our last talk.”
“Suspense? You could have just called.”
“I know. But I didn’t want to trouble you when you were entertaining. You had your hands full. Besides, I don’t know how much difference it would have made in the end.”
Toni narrowed her eyes. “So, where were we?”
I leaned in. “The telltale signs of character. You mentioned there were two, but only gave me one about allowing time to take its course. In due time, one’s persona will reveal itself.”
“Now I remember. The second thing wouldn’t have been much help to you at this stage of the hiring process either.” Toni shrugged. “Remember the metaphor I gave about the landscape covered in snow and awaiting the season to pass?”
“Yes, the passing season, and how time reveals one’s character.”
“Well, you know sometimes during winter the weather may fluctuate within a particular day?”
“You mean like a January thaw?” I asked.
“Sure. Well, let’s imagine there’s snow, and the temperature rises to 50 degrees. What happens to all the snow?”
“It’ll melt, or most of it will.”
“Exactly. And that’s the second telltale sign of character.”
I furrowed my brow. “Wait. Sinusoidal estimates of forecasted temperatures make up the second thing?”
“No,” Toni chuckled. “Take it a little less literal.”
I tried to come up with something that was less straightforward. “Something causes snow to melt faster so you don’t have to wait ‘til the end of the season to see the landscape?”
“Ok… but I still don’t know what we’re talking about here. What is it which speeds the process up?”
Toni inclined her head. “Fair question. What could reveal a person’s character faster than the passage of time? Consider your own personal and professional relationships.”
“I’m not sure. Perhaps an experience of some sort?”
“What kind of experience?
“A significant one.”
“Not necessarily a positive one. That’s the most important part.” She grinned.
“An adverse experience?”
“Suppose you were hunkered down with someone in a wartime trench. Do you think you would get a sense of that person’s character in a relatively short period of time?”
She shook her head. “Definitely.”
“So, I have to wait for something tragic to happen to see what a manager is made of?”
“Not some epic tragedy, but a crisis of some sort. This demonstrates how they respond to hardship. Do they maintain their commitment and focus and see it through?”
“With greater and lesser misfortunes, some hardships would be more indicative than others.”
“Of course,” she added, “But whatever isn’t revealed through hardship will eventually come through as seasons change and time passes. There’s simply no substitution for time and failure in learning a person’s mettle.”
In his book, Ground Rules for Winners, Joe Torre discusses twelve principles to manage success. He explained no one is exempt from disappointment, but the difference in the outcome lies in the outlook. On one hand, a setback can be taken so to heart that the associated stress can overrun someone and destroy their resolve. On the other hand, a failure can be viewed not as an outcome, but as an opportunity to strengthen someone’s determination to forge ahead. Torre offered a positive, optimistic approach along four principles:
- Build faith in yourself and each other with conﬁdent words and support.
- Find refuge from personal troubles.
- Believe in your own resilience by focusing on your strengths.
- Learn from past defeats and allow them to strengthen you.
In an interview with Adam Sternbergh of Vulture, writer and director M. Night Shyamalan discussed the importance of not bifurcating failure and success into separate columns. Shyamalan said we can get thwarted from moving ahead and “get blurry about what we can control” by categorizing outcomes. Shyamalan mentioned his film, Unbreakable, which did not have the reception he had hoped. If given the chance, he said he would tell his younger self that it is not his concern. What’s most important is to keep moving forward, because “failure is very cleansing.” His appreciation for failure transcends his consideration of success because triumphs can be “confusing.” They give the false impression you have control over that column. When asked what the greatest thing was to happen over the course of his career, he stated, “When I was 21 and 23, the first two movies I directed failed.”
What is true for the music, film, or sports bodes likewise for court management. Resilience is consequential, not for the temporary result. It is in how the manager responds to those circumstances, which is important to character. So, What Would a Court Manager Do (WWCMD) when experiencing a crisis in the workplace or a personal failure? The leader would be “accessible” to their team and demonstrate that they are coping. They would demonstrate composure and an ability to move forward with duties and responsibilities notwithstanding circumstance. They would exude optimism and maintain a countenance perpetuating confidence. When doubt and indecision remain, they would seek counsel privately and decide what the team needs to know without burdening them. The American writer, Arthur Golden, described adversity “like a strong wind. It tears from us all but the things that cannot be torn so that we see ourselves as we really are.” Toni would agree. If you are in a position of power and leadership, she would add that it would allow those around you to also see. For the court manager, a failure is perhaps more important than the most significant success because it bares one’s character in a way which few things can.
And those are just some of my musings on management.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Giuseppe M. Fazari has been musing about management concepts and practices throughout his career as an administrator, consultant, and academic. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.