On Leadership, Perseverance and Leading Through Failure

Henry Ford's Model T

When great entrepreneurs set out on their quest to “do what they do,” they oftentimes meet massive amounts of personal, professional, and financial failure. Yet it seems like the most successful have one thing in common: Perseverance.

Title this one: “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: The Worst Failures By the Most Respected Entrepreneurs”

Being Defined by Failure

There’s much that budding entrepreneurs and experienced business people can learn from the success of others, but entrepreneurs are also defined by their failures. Examples of modern entrepreneurs who came back from failure abound, from Steve Jobs, who was fired from Apple to founders of budding companies, such as Todd Pedersen, founder of Vivint.

However, it would be wise to also pay attention to the lessons learned from some of the most respected entrepreneurs in our history books. These visionaries may be remembered for their great successes, but there’s a lot to be learned from their greatest failures too.

3 Great Leaders Who Led Through Failure

1. Henry Ford

Henry Ford created his first car inside a brick shed in his garden. Appropriately named the Tin Lizzie, it was pieced together with scrap metal, featured a two-cylinder, four-cycle motor, sat on four bicycle wheels, and had no brakes. Ford probably first realized he’d made a mistake when the car wasn’t able to make it out the shed door, but after breaking down a wall and taking the car around the block, he realized the design wasn’t successful.

I’m guessing it had something to do with his inability to stop.

Ford’s failure didn’t stop him from pursuing his interest in the automobile, however. He approached a group of businessmen to fund his venture and was given $10,000 to create ten cars. Unfortunately, Ford got so focused on perfection that he ended up spending the money without producing a single car.

After gaining some public recognition through racing, Ford once again formed a company, but due to production delays and conflicts with shareholders, Ford saw his company collapse once again.

Yes, it wasn’t until his fourth attempt that Ford’s famous Model T led him to success, but there is plenty we can learn from his failures as well as his successes:

  • Good ideas take time to develop
  • You need a good product to get funding; you need good business sense to succeed.
  • Don’t be afraid to fail (or knockdown brick walls.)

2. Walt Disney

Walt Disney went through bankruptcy at the ripe old age of 22. His first cartoon series, Laugh-O-Grams, started out as short pieces on a weekly newsreel. The Laugh-O-grams was a hit, so Disney decided to start creating animated fairy tales that were modernized by including recent events. He managed to produce seven of the cartoons before his company went bankrupt due to the distributor failing to pay for the cartoons as promised.

Disney’s first big success also turned out to be a failure, as he lost the rights to his character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit as well as many of his workers who decided to work for the distributor instead of him.

The inspiring thing about Disney’s story is that despite being betrayed and cheated out of his business twice, he continued to take risks and develop something new, and Mickey Mouse was the result. The rest is history. What should we learn from this?

  • Despite our own talents and work ethic, we must also deal with the consequences of others’ actions.
  • The ability to take risks after experiencing failure is a key attribute for a successful entrepreneur.

3. Rowland Macy

For the first ten years of his business pursuits, Rowland Macy had four retail ventures fail. Despite these failures, Macy founded the first Macy’s store in Massachusetts. Applying what he had learned from his earlier mistakes, Macy started offering lower prices for cash purchases and eliminated bargaining in his store.

Unfortunately, the changes he made weren’t enough to keep his venture from failing a second time. Still, he didn’t give up, and once again founded a Macy’s store, this time in New York. Macy’s sought to learn from his past mistakes and chose to work on solely a cash basis, refusing any credit from wholesalers. His wise business decisions allowed him to turn a hefty profit despite the country being in a recession.

What we learn from Macy:

  • Pay attention to details
  • Learn from your mistakes. Don’t be afraid of them.

What other lessons would you add from your favorite entrepreneurial story or your own business ventures? How have they impacted the way you persevere? I would love to hear your thoughts!


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Robert Cordray is a freelance writer with over 20 years of business experience
He does the occasional business consult to help increase employee morale
Email | LinkedIn | Twitter | Web

Image Sources: lh3.googleusercontent.com

L2L Contributing Author


  1. Clinton Dix on March 21, 2014 at 10:09 am

    Robert, good post. Your thoughts about Henry Ford and his perfectionism reminded me of what Dr. Edmondson in her book Teaming says about learning in a very complex world. She says that it is not about getting it right the first time. Learning to learn requires an acceptance of failure. A learning mindset needs to include an iterative process that goes fro trial to reflection, to planning, to another trial.

    All three of your examples built on their earlier mistakes and your point about resilience is well taken.

    Amazon link to the book:

  2. Tina Del Buono, PMAC on March 21, 2014 at 8:18 pm

    Great examples thank you!

  3. ramakrishnan6002 on April 13, 2014 at 10:49 pm

    Reblogged this on Gr8fullsoul.