Failing Up – How to fail your way to the top

As a kid, I always wondered why baseball managers would flame-out on one team, and yet get hired immediately the following year by another team. It always seemed the same pool of tired old managers would be in place around the league, year-in and year-out, despite their performance history and lack of success elsewhere. Wow, I thought – no amount of failure made these guys unappealing or unsuitable elsewhere. That’s a pretty good gig.

I see a similar thing in business, as well. Lots of leaders learn to “fail up”, as I call it. From high-profile CEO’s who go company to company (can anyone say Mark Hurd?) to the folks in your organization who go higher and higher to universal bafflement. They figure out how to continue to get promoted, step over others, and get re-hired after they get found out. Again and again. People who leave trails of disaster, from one senior leadership role to another. People who cause nearly everyone to scratch their heads, asking “how did they get that job?”, and “how can everyone not see through them?” Well, I’m here to tell you that failing up is a simple – here is all you need to know in in 5 easy steps.

1) Focus on style over substance. Those who learn to fail up learn to look and act like leaders. So don’t waste your time on depth, substance, rigor or authenticity. Instead, learn to bluster and posture. In fact, perhaps, create your own individual style – I’m considering “gruff and terse and too busy for anyone else.” So people don’t find fault with me, they say “that’s just how he is”.

2) Manage up, never down. If you focus only on pleasing your bosses, you have a good chance of fooling them that you’re doing a great job. And those below you and around you, although helpful to getting the work done, won’t play a role in getting you promoted. So don’t waste time on respecting them, empowering them, and growing them.

3) Blame others for mistakes. If you want to fail up, you have to make sure that you are never associated with the errors and failures on your watch. So become adept at passing blame on to others. Always be ready to avoid responsibility – in fact, you are the victim. Someone else made the mistake, people didn’t do as you’d directed, people were disobedient, etc. Prepare your blame in advance, just in case.

4) Be a self-proclaimed expert of something. It’s helpful for your upward mobility to profess expertise in an area. Be the “automotive” expert. Or the “retail” expert. Or, better yet, the “turnaround” expert. So if you leave one company, you can be considered perfect for another. Thanks to myopic, insular hiring trends of so many industries, lots of companies are looking for people with insider “expertise”, vs. the best leader with the best, broad experience. So failure at one company in an industry simply leads to another job in the industry.

5) Be insanely over-confident. It’s important to demonstrate an outsized confidence level. It suggests incredible capability. And it doesn’t require any proof, history or evidence. So, despite a lack of true credibility, over-confidence can be rewarded with more and more responsibility. Thankfully, because you now know how to manage up and blame others, you are safe when your over-confidence leads you to fail. It wasn’t your fault!

So, there you have it – 5 steps towards failing up! Unfortunately for me, I’ve never been able to do any of this. So I’ve had to be content with succeeding down.


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