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Humility as an asset in France

Shift in thought

A new leader claims he is helping the French learn how to fail in business, a necessary step for innovation and one that requires humility.

A former train station in Paris has been converted into "Station F," a place for startups, multinationals and investors to start new businesses.
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  • The Monitor's Editorial Board

Not many world leaders would pitch the virtue of humility as a strategic asset for their country’s competitiveness. Yet that is what French President Emmanuel Macron did this week at a gathering of the global elite in Davos, Switzerland. He claimed his reforms since being elected last year are helping the French – especially its rising number of entrepreneurs – to learn from mistakes in business.

“In France, it was forbidden to fail and forbidden to succeed,” he said at the World Economic Forum. “Now it should be more easy to fail, to take risk.”

Mr. Macron seeks to create “breakthrough innovation” in France that will help the country to produce more world-class technologies. But he realizes this will take a “cultural change.” France has a long tradition of people relying on workplace stability and the state. He said too many workers still fear globalization.

One solution for such fear lies in humility, or a willingness to recover from trials and errors. As French statesman Georges Clemenceau once said: “Life gets interesting if you fail because it means we’ve surpassed ourselves.”

Macron has pledged money to retrain workers and provide more venture capital – which will balance new labor reforms. He has given more freedom for schools to experiment in ways that would teach critical thinking.

He also seeks to link up French entrepreneurs with other hotbeds of innovation, such as California’s Silicon Valley and China. And he has proposed an “innovation agency” for the European Union to rival the Pentagon’s research agency.

Macron represents the latest model of what is called “failure-tolerant” leadership. Such leaders must show humility and compassion in allowing people to learn from dead-end experiments in order to come up with better concepts for success.

In electing Macron, the French showed they were willing for a shift in thinking. His new political party defeated the country’s two well-established parties in the 2017 elections.

He now dubs France as a “start-up nation.” But he says that with some humility – just in case some of his reforms fail.

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