Not quite a decade ago, Maria Klawe, then the highly regarded dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University, was recruited to become the fifth president of Harvey Mudd College, an elite Southern California school specializing in science, engineering and math. Klawe’s recruiters at the college told her they wanted a bold and visionary leader—a change agent who would bring new thinking to the school and how it was run.
Klawe (pronounced KLAH-vay) took them at their word. She charged in and proposed new majors, such as science journalism, that faculty complained were nontraditional; created a senior leadership team that unnerved staffers who were not accustomed to working collaboratively; and generally underestimated the extent to which the academic community would resist her zealous efforts to execute her mission. She also answered questions in meetings so quickly that listeners felt she wasn’t being deliberative or thoughtful.
Now, when she gives speeches, “I often talk about what went wrong in my first year,” says Klawe, a frank, good-humored computer scientist who can hardly name all the innovations she proposed that freaked people out. Not that the outcry was unexpected: “There have been many times in my career when I pushed harder for change than most people were ready for.” At the University of British Columbia, for example, she felt that the department she headed, computer science, was drastically underfunded compared with the older, more established physical science departments. “I fought for this, and over time the budgets became more equitable—which those other departments resented enormously,” she says. By the time she landed at Harvey Mudd, she knew that when people object to your leadership, there’s no point in protesting. You need to try to recover, then find an effective path forward.
For Klawe, this meant working with an executive coach to develop a leadership style that was slower paced as well as more strategic and reflective. She learned to “seed” certain ideas by asking a like-minded colleague to propose the change rather than having it come from her. She trained herself to listen actively and avoid interrupting. “I learned how to be much less energetic and dynamic, a lot quieter,” says Klawe, who has been known to paint with watercolors in meetings to slow herself down. “It really took a huge change.” And her new approach was noticed: She says any number of faculty and board members have told her that because she accepted criticism on her first-year performance and set about transforming herself as a leader, they came to trust her immensely. Once she had their support, she began the process of taking a really good school and making it great. “I’m a big believer in failure,” Klawe says. “I don’t know of any successful person who hasn’t failed lots of times.”
Could You Weather the Storm?
Klawe’s view of failure is symbolic of a broader trend in our culture. Far from being something shameful or harmful, failure is now understood as an experience to be valued and even sought, according to a chorus of academics and thought leaders. To attempt something difficult and fail at it shows that you are pushing past your existing skill set. Framed this way, failure is not a scarlet letter; it’s a sign that you’re on track to reach a new level of achievement. This notion is also gaining traction in the corporate world. The Harvard Business Review not too long ago devoted an entire issue to failure as a driver of creativity, urging managers to create cultures in which failure is seen as inevitable—even desirable—rather than undiscussable. In October, Dilbert creator Scott Adams came out with the book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, chronicling the string of failures he experienced before hitting a sweet spot with his comic strip.