“I don’t see failure as failure”

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The best leaders let you fail

Failure. It’s something we tend to want to avoid. But Salman Ali Khan, Lead Country UAE and Power Generation Services EHS Head, thinks differently. He says the best leaders let people fail, and dares us all to be braver when it comes to not ‘getting it right’ every time

As the old adage goes, nobody is perfect. Salman Ali Khan, who manages approximately 50 people, takes a refreshing approach to leadership by accepting imperfection and not shying away from failure. “I don’t even look at it as failure,” he says. “I look at it as lessons learned for the next challenge.”

Why failure is key

Salman believes adults have a lot to learn from children – after all, they are often braver when it comes to making mistakes. With every error or lapse of judgement, they learn. Adults, however, almost become conditioned to avoid showing their vulnerabilities; they want to get it right first time, and in an employment setting, they often thrive by proving their competence to colleagues. Salman says, “Kids: if they were afraid of failure they would never get up and learn how to walk and run. They fall, they get up, they fall, they get up, and that’s how you learn.” 

In the same way, all children can draw. They’re not afraid of picking up a couple of crayons and creating a brightly coloured masterpiece, even if their work of art doesn’t depict the subject in the most accurate or aesthetically pleasing way. As we approach adulthood our attitude changes, we become afraid of drawing a line out of place, we over-analyze and are deeply critical of our creations. We admit defeat and we throw away our colouring books. 

Salman dares his teams to reclaim this childlike spirit of experimentation, even if the art on the page – or the work presented in a boardroom – isn’t perfect. “I keep telling my teams that you learn your whole life. You have to keep an open mind. You have to make sure that you are in this process of continuous learning, self-development and self-growth. Once you get to this point, then it’s easier to manage or accept failures, learn from it, then push for the next time.”

What makes a good leader?

“A good leader, in my opinion, does not need to constantly tell people what they need to do. He does it by doing it. People are not stupid, they are not dumb; they can see when somebody is actually doing what they are talking about”, he says. For Salman, it’s essential for leaders to practise what they preach. They need to show their teams by doing, as well as telling. 

Interestingly, he also makes a distinction between “managers” and “leaders”, two terms that are often used interchangeably. “If I talk about communication, but never share anything... If I talk about big ideas, but never include them... People see right through that. So, managers and leaders are completely different in my opinion. Managers manage, leaders lead.”

I’ve always enjoyed not directing with a stick; I love to inspire people so that they want to bring out the best in themselves
Salman Ali Khan

The importance of freedom

In order to enable his team to learn by “failure” (if we should even refer to it as that), Salman is an avid believer in the importance of providing people with the freedom to make their own choices. Referring to superiors who helped him to shape his own leadership skills, he says, “All of them gave me space to grow. I would obviously bounce big ideas with them. I will tell them, ‘What do you think about this? How do I approach this?’ But they never micromanaged me, which stifles creativity.”

Salman has always enjoyed positions of leadership, but he’s learnt to fine-tune his technique as his career has progressed. “I’ve always enjoyed not directing with a stick; I love to inspire people so that they want to bring out the best in themselves.” 

He is candid in accepting that his own leadership skills were far from perfect. He, like all of us, needed time and experience to improve. “When I was early on in my career, I was pretty forward in ideas I felt strongly about, but had a completely different way of putting them forward. When I tried to sell it, I would not include as many people. I would think, ‘How could you not see it my way?’ Rather than today, I am much more open minded, much more inclusive of other’s opinions.”

Leaders must recognize stress

Pivotal to Salman’s development as a leader is ensuring his team is happy and healthy. He is currently working on a program to help people recognize workplace stress. “We need to bring awareness to everyone – especially managers and leaders – to be able to recognize stressed people within their team. Not to hold them accountable, but to look at what the system is doing to them. Are you giving breaks? Do you motivate them? Do you give them a pat on the back and take them out for dinner? Do you show your appreciation for the amount of hard work they’re putting in? All of these play a part in being a leader,” he says.

He’ll regularly begin meetings discussing the importance of stress management, to ensure the topic is out in the open as much as possible. “This is a very real topic and there’s a lot of stigma around stress management and psychosocial health. A lot of people might be suffering, but they are too hesitant to even talk about the stigma that might be attached to them for the rest of their lives,” he says. Again, his leadership technique is about encouraging people to have the confidence to show their true selves and not feel like they have to hide or veil their insecurities from colleagues. 

Salman’s outlook on leadership is refreshing; it’s frank, open, honest. He readily admits his own imperfections while encouraging his team to have the confidence to confront – and learn from – their own. Perhaps we should all try harder to admit our weaknesses, be braver in the face of “failure”, and have the confidence to speak up if things become too much. After all, as Salman himself says, what really happens when you “fail” at work? “It’s not the end of the world.”

Salman Ali Khan is Lead Country UAE and Power Generation Services EHS Head, based in Dubai. EHS (Environmental Protection, Health Management and Safety) is responsible for protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, fostering the health and performance of employees, as well as safeguarding working conditions.