10 Actions to Take When You Fail as a Leader

What should you do when you fail as a leader?

If you live a life of leadership – an intentional journey to take people places – you will fail at some point – sometimes repeatedly, sometimes hard, and sometimes gravely.

when you fail as a leader image

At times I wonder how a high-profile CEO feels when he’s fired.  You hear about such events often in the news.  How does a high-level leader feel when the company he or she is leading is in severe decline?

I seriously don’t think these leaders are not trying, doing their best, or giving it all they’ve got.   I am pretty sure they get the best consultants, read the latest books, and do their due diligence.

I am sure they have worked hard their entire career, and garnered immense knowledge and acumen.  I am sure they have won personal battles and developed character that is tested by fire.

So why do they fail?  What should they do when they fail?  And what should we do if our leadership is failing?

Daniel Hesse, the CEO of Sprint since 2007, has presided over an 80% drop in the value of his company’s stock.  He was featured on the list of Worst CEO’s of 2012 by CNBC.

I have never met Daniel, but I commiserate with him.  Don’t get me wrong, I will not cut him slack – and I am sure he will not cut himself slack.  He is the leader of that company, and he is responsible.

I commiserate with him because I know that sometimes as a leader (a lot of times), you do your very best, you apply all the principles you know, all the tricks in your bag, you talk to all the smart people around you, but you still fail.

It may be at home – failing to lead your children well.   As a doctor, I see so many parents, devastated as they lose their children to drugs and violence.  Sometimes I ask myself, “Did this parent not try to impact and discipline their kids?”  But I quickly answer myself, “they did.”

It may be as a team leader – perhaps there is a person on your team you just cannot reach.  You’ve tried everything – the nice, the firm, the carrot, the stick – nothing!

It may be as a business owner, a manager, a pastor, a political leader.  Yes, I believe that you’ve tried!  I believe that you’ve given it your very best!

So, why do good people fail as leaders sometimes?  And why do great leaders fail as leaders?  We can go into theoretical leadership explanations which fill volumes to answer that question.  I will not.  But I will say this:

Regardless of how good leaders are, they will fail sometimes.

I wish it were different, but it is not.  So what do you do when you fail as a leader?

What do you do when you have tried everything you know and you just simply can’t pull it off?

Here are 10 actions to take:

1. Redouble your efforts to grow (intentionally) as a leader.  It is simply astounding to me how many people I meet who are failing in leading their marriages, their kids, their teams, and their organizations.  And I ask them, “What are you doing to grow in that area?  Are you reading books to grow in _________ (fill in the blank about the area they struggle with)?”   The answer is almost always “no.”

2. Cut yourself some slack.  It is okay!  Take a deep breath.  Failure does not mean that you are a horrible person.  Failure means that your skills and the circumstances simply could not lead to a better result.  If you had different (and better) skills, or if the circumstances were different, the result could have been better.

3. Honor people’s dignity.  This is something you should not fail at.  I never ever want to fail at that!  I can fail at not being able to build a great team, show a great profit, or lead my organization to the limelight.  As much as I try, as much as I grow, as much as I become, there will be situations I simply cannot handle.  But honoring people’s humanity, and showing them dignity is a must.  Let people say that about you, always!  Let them say, “Above all, he loved me.”

4. Face the music.  When you fail, admit that you do – admit it to yourself!  Because when you do, you can move on, you can look for different solutions, different people to lead, and different approaches to apply.   When things are not working, it is admirable to try, try, and try harder –  but only to a point.  When it is clear you are not able to push through, stop!  Think! Redirect! Restrategize.  So many of us just “keep trying harder” when we need to just stop and “try differently.”

5. Listen to people.  Look for the critics – yes, the critics.  Obviously the ones that have told you that you are doing well were wrong.  You are failing!   So, listen to all the opposing views now with an open mind.

6. Listen to your heart.  So many of us fail because we simply do not listen to our gut, our intuition, our instinct!   Have the courage to make that an integral part of your decision making.

7. Be happy you know your limit.  Failure means that you’ve pushed yourself outside your current skill set and your comfort zone.  Now you know your limit.  You know what you need to work on.

8. Define success properly.  What is success for you?  Is it great results?  Is it great profit?  Is it great kids?  Is it a great organization?   Is it winning the game?  Or the championship?  I think success should not be defined as such.  Success should be that we grow daily, conquer ourselves, try our best, give consistently, and plant great seeds in others.  In the movie Braveheart, Wallace dies at the end and the rebellion is crushed.  But we all think he was a success.   He gave his 100% effort!  So should we.  And that should be our goal and our reward – knowing that we gave it all we had!

9. Stand up to life.  My mother gave me the best simple advice many years ago – advice only a mother can give.   I was feeling down because of a setback in my career.  She looked at me and said, “Son, you have to be stronger than life.”  Life can crush you.  Stand up!  Tall!  Decide to face whatever challenges you have.  When you cower down, you will be run over!  I have no doubt about it.  Life has no mercy sometimes!

10. Be humble.  Do you know that it’s possible that what you are doing is wrong?  I don’t care if you are applying things that led to success previously, and you know they are the right things to try.  You could be dead wrong in the way you are thinking, acting, feeling, working, or leading.  Being humble means that you let go forever of these feelings of infallibility.  This is so hard for us as humans.

We are so sure our way, our religion, our thinking, our actions, our parenting, our leadership, our political views, our communication is just right.  Let me break it to you…if it were so right, you would not be at a point of failure today!  Listen to me…you are a human being.   Your ancestors and mine were just as smart as we are, and they thought that slavery was okay, that the earth was flat, and that drilling a hole in the skull was the best way treat a severe migraine.   We have got to let go of this attitude of infallibility, even a little bit – then we will start seeing solutions we never saw before.

My friend, I know the pains of failure as a leader.  It hurts!  It hurts in your gut, when you face people, when you face yourself in the mirror.   Sometimes you feel caged or in chains unable to break free as a leader.

Listen to me carefully…there is nothing more honorable than taking people to the next level, taking people to great places.  It is worth the effort, it is worth pushing yourself, and it is worth the pain of failing!

So, dig deep in your heart, redirect your path when you are ready, cut your losses when possible, and keep forging forward.

Don’t give up on leadership.  Don’t give up on taking people to high places.  The world needs you.  Your world needs you!

I am cheering you on!  Get up.  Dust yourself off.  Get in the fight!

Your friend,
Wes Saade MD Signature

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2 Comments
  • Bill Coy
    Posted at 06:04h, 06 March Reply

    Your observation is true, true, true. Too often however, senior leadership allows subordinate leadership to “fix” what isn’t broke (sic) and divert the attention away from themselves or senior leadership by attacking the rank and file. Having led the best of our military and experienced business in the Third World, I agree with your Honduran friends’ assertion and add that corruption remains the gravest enemy of the people of the Americas; and sadly we are importing that malady instead of exporting our ethics.

    • Wes Saade
      Posted at 22:58h, 14 September Reply

      Thank you Bill for your comment! Sounds like you have great experience in leadership. Corruption is such a stubborn virus, totally agree.

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