leadership failure

What Great Leaders Do When Bad Things Happen

It seemed like a complete disaster. It was a project that our team created, organized, and executed, yet the outcome we received was far from what we desired. Sound familiar? It should, as we’ve all experienced the feeling of failure at one point in our lives. Whether in the workplace, in a sporting event, or other moments in our daily life, this failure can cause many different emotions such as frustration, disappointment, and most of all, fear.

In his new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World, Adam Grant (Wharton’s four-time teacher of the year) gives some practical advice when we face fear. Instead of letting fear drift into anxiety or dread, reframe it into excitement. For example, in a study of people who fear public speaking (listed as one of the biggest fears people experience), the participants were divided into two groups. One group was given these three words: “I am calm." The other group was given three different words: “I am excited."

Which group performed their speeches better?

This one-word difference caused listeners of the talks to rate the “I am excited” group as 17% more persuasive and 15% more confident than the “I am calm” group.

Turning your fear into excitement can energize you to act. If you remain to calm for too long, there is a potential for negative self-talk and anxiety to set in. My hypothesis here is that the old advice of “remain calm” when you are in fear is really, "lower your anxiety and get moving." To remain calm for too long can cause paralysis in times of tension and complexity.

When you face times of tension, stress, and fear, how do you react?

We developed the CHECK list that we wrote about last week to give you a tool that will help you move forward when you are experiencing situations that bring fear.

Consider the Situation

It can be difficult to look at your situation objectively, considering the result of the project didn’t meet your expectations. Ask yourself the following questions to help you reflect and move forward:

  • What went well?
  • What could be improved?
  • What needs to change or be omitted?

Hear from Others

Take it to your team and colleagues. Ask them the questions that you asked yourself above. Create a space that allows them to speak into the situation and feel positive through a process of brainstorming the solutions. Including them will motivate them in moving forward. If your team is stuck, consider bringing a coach into the situation to offer a fresh perspective and facilitate conversations or the planning process.

Eliminate Negativity

It requires a full 360 shift perspective to begin to see failing as a learning opportunity instead of as failure. Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz talk about this feeling of failure in their book, Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win. In their research, the authors found that people who are happy and successful spend less time planning and more time acting. Now, there is planning involved prior to action, but what these people do is act on their plan without emotional fear based baggage. These folks get out into their universe to try different things and learn from their mistakes. From their perspective, failing is learning, not failure.

Conduct a Plan

Once you've looked at the situation objectively and heard from others, you can go back to the drawing board and work out a plan for moving forward. As mentioned earlier, try not to dwell in the planning stage. Instead, implement action. Consider adding some check-ups throughout your plan to track the progress along the way. Include someone in these check-ups for accountability.

Keep Your Head Up

Believe in yourself and in your team. Let others see your positive attitude and resilient behavior focused on moving forward. They will follow your lead and look to you for support or motivation. Approach your project from a different angle than before to give it a fresh feel for you and your team.


Reflect on a project or situation that didn't go the way you planned. Write down what went well and what could have been done differently. Share these thoughts with a colleague or mentor and brainstorm a plan for improvement next time.

A Vaccination for Leadership Failure

Who wants to fail as a leader? No one. None of us wakes up in the morning and says, “Let me see how I can totally screw up the thing I am working on today."

And yet…Here is my story.

4 Things to Look for in Wise Counsel (2)

A number of years ago, I had been a fairly successful sales professional and tapped for a management development program. The company I worked for was growing like crazy. Most people spent less than 2 years in this program before they were tapped for their first management level job. I thought I had arrived! Look at me! Watch me climb! Nothing will stop my career! These were all thoughts I had at the time. I was on top of the world and it felt great.

My wife and I moved from my sales territory in Decatur, Illinois to the corporate headquarters in Indianapolis, Indiana. Our family consisted of my wife and I along with our 2-year-old son Zach, and a precious baby girl due in about 6 weeks. The plan was to be in Indianapolis for less than 2 years before our next move into my first management level job. So, I did what every person with a dream, a wife, and 2 young kids does….

I went out and bought a 2 seat sports car.

I rationalized it by telling myself, "Hey, we already own a minivan. No problem."

Fast forward 5 years later. That's right, my 2-year window for promotion had gone to 5! The company hit a tight spot. No one got promoted for 3 years beyond my 2-year window. And on top of the career slow down, my wife and I had another baby boy! We were now a family of 5, with a minivan and a second car that is a Mazda Rx 7.

Great car, yet totally not practical when my wife took the minivan to go shopping one Saturday and left me with the 3 kids and a couple of friends kids. Scott and 5 kids on a Saturday morning, normally not a problem, until Zach comes out holding his hand over his eye and blood dripping down having just been whacked on the head with a toy by one of the other kids.

Question: How do I get 5 kids and me in the Rx7 and to the hospital to get Zach stitched up?

The Lesson

There is an ancient Proverb that says “Before his downfall a man's heart is proud."

I will admit it. I was full of pride. Proud of my career. Proud of my family. Proud of how I had achieved.

What is the problem with pride? It blocks your vision of reality. As leaders, we puff ourselves up for everyone to see.

What are some things that feed our pride as leaders?

1. People come to you for decision making. 2. People look to you for safety (job security). 3. People look to you as an expert in your field. 4. People feel comfortable knowing you are there. 5. You make people feel they are important. 6. You give people a feeling of optimism. 7. You give people a sense of hope. 8. You are near the top of the food chain. 9. People seek your advice and counsel. 10. Your opinions are sought and considered.

The great writer CS Lewis says that the problem with your pride is that it is in competition with everyone else's pride. Pride at its very root is competitive. “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man,” according to Lewis.

More money. Bigger house. Better looking. Smarter. Prettier wife. More loving husband. Successful kids. Faithful servant. Harder worker. Coolest job.

The problem with pride is not the metric, but what we do with it. It is in our nature to compare. It is how we know where we are. The problem with pride is an inability to be content and a desire for control. It is a scarcity mentality that says for me to be up in life you must be down.

This is a lie.

Great leaders find ways for everyone to be up.

What I have learned over the years is that when I begin feeling like this, full of pride, I better watch my next step.

The Vaccination

When things go wrong, we begin to think about treatment. Treatment is about fixing the problem. Vaccination, however, is about prevention.

Treatment in the medical world is meant to help you recover from something that has happened to you. A vaccination is meant to prevent the disease in the first place.

The second part of the Proverb I mentioned above states, “but humility comes before honor."

Being humble. Putting others ahead of your pride. Being modest in your opinion of yourself. Thinking of others as better than yourself is one way to overcome pride.

The question I have been asking myself is, are there any strategies for preventing pride in the first place?

How can you vaccinate yourself against pride that often accompanies Leadership?

Here is a shot in the arm that can help you prevent Leadership Pride. This might sting a little, but here comes the needle...

Seek Wise Counsel.

That didn’t hurt too bad, did it?

Looking back on my story, I really should have sought wise counsel about buying that car. Not only was it impractical, but the assumptions I used to frame my reality regarding my career and my family were askew. They just were not based in reality. Just because the business was in an up cycle didn’t mean it was going to stay that way forever. Some wise counsel at that time could have been just the vaccination the doctor would have prescribed to prevent me from making such a poor decision.

There is another Proverb that says “Without counsel plans are frustrated, but with many counselors plans succeed."

As you are thinking about getting wise counsel in your life, what should you look for? Here are a few things I have found as I have researched the topic:

4 Things to Look for in Wise Counsel:

1. Experience. Why not ask someone who has been down the road what the path looks like? 2. Impulse Control. Look for someone who is not going to be swayed by your emotional rationale. You do not want someone who will agree with you all the time. You want another perspective on what reality looks like. A person who is patient enough to hear you out. 3. Courage. Having an ability to disagree with you is paramount to you being able to learn and grow. 4. Empathy. Someone who can see your perspective even if they do not agree. Empathy differs from sympathy in that the empathic person will ask the hard question when it is in your best interest. The sympathetic person will just agree with you in whatever state you are in.

So often in leader development we screw up and look for a treatment remedy for what has happened. Why not look to prevent these potential failures in leadership by vaccinating yourself against tragedy? Seeking wise counsel may be one good shot in the arm for you as a leader.

Your Homework

Look for a leadership decision you have coming up. Seek out some wise counsel. Lay the topic out for those you are seeking input from, without bias or telling them your preferences. Consider what they say to you before you act.

Call to Action

Please click here to go to my Facebook page and leave a comment about the value you have found in seeking wise counsel in your leadership life. We would love to hear from you.

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