The Art of Falling

I recently read an article about Alan Magee, a WWII Army-Airforce pilot who survived a fall of around 20,000 feet (6.5 kms) from his B17 turret gunner. When anti-aircraft fire damaged his plane (and his parachute!) it began spinning out of control. He found a gap and jumped… He remembers tumbling, but then lost consciousness and later discovered from eyewitness accounts, that he had crashed through the glass skylight at a train station. The skylight broke his fall and although he suffered numerous injuries which required serious medical attention, he made a full recovery and went on to live for another 61 years, dying at the ripe old age of 84!

This got me thinking about the parallels between surviving a physical fall and when we “fall down” or fail. It’s unlikely any one of us will be falling as Magee did, but failing is an inevitable part of life. We fail every day in various ways, and many of us have been programmed from a young age to fear failure or to be ashamed when we fall short. We tend to dwell on past failures, look for others to blame, or even keep our mistakes hidden in the hope that we won’t be found out, instead of being transparent, learning and growing through it and helping others not to make the same mistake.

Increasing your survivability

Apparently, there is a science to surviving such an incredibly long fall and Magee happened to have a few factors in his favour. What counted for him was that he:

  • Was small in size,
  • Landed on something that broke his fall,
  • Didn’t land on his head.

If we take the “science” behind falling and surviving, there are some great lessons to be learnt for team leaders and employees alike, from those who have tumbled from great heights, and survived.

Stay small

Firstly, we need to be willing to stay “small”, or to put it in context we need to stay humble! If we are ready to admit our mistakes and keep the right attitude, we will be more prepared to work harder and to succeed. In the same way, when an employee fails, how do we respond in the situation? Our own failures should remind us to stay “small” and to not play the “shame game”, but rather to be ready to listen, give support and look for solutions together. This will enable everyone to use failure as a rich learning experience.

Land on something that breaks the fall

When we fail, we need to make sure that we have the right people around us to help break our fall. We need team members and leaders who are going to help us to plan for preventative measures so that the same thing doesn’t happen again. A high-performance team creates a secure environment and ensures that the lessons learned from the failure make success the end result. Leaders need to nurture creativity and encourage employees to try different ways of doing things. This may lead to “failure” in many instances, but it’s the way we look at it and react to it that will determine our success.

Don’t land on your head

And lastly, it is advisable to not land on your head, or to put it another way, make sure you land on your feet! We cannot allow failure to demotivate us. Rather, we need the strength to dust ourselves off, put it behind us and keep moving ahead. Something that really struck me about Alan Magee’s character was that he hardly spoke about the fall and was “always looking forward and living for the moment”. It is a choice to move on and to use the lessons learnt as a motivator to achieve more and to help others do the same.

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” – Henry Ford

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