What Is Your Usual Response to Failure? A Leader's Constant Battle

I had dinner recently with a person who started a business that became an instant success, then brought on a partner who ended up cheating him out of the profits. This business was sold sixteen years later for one billion dollars. The man who was cheated felt hurt, even bitter. He eventually had to file for bankruptcy, and to this day he cannot get credit to buy a car. But he has persisted.

How should we respond to such failure, loss, or the voices in our heads that torment: I cannot do this. Is this worth it? I thought I was better. This is a disaster.

response to failure

Normally, when we face painful realities as my friend did, we go through some natural responses common to us all. Even if our situation is not a colossal loss like his was, as leaders we face daily challenges, such as a person not doing what we want them to do, a team not living up to our expectations, a plan not working out well, an organization that is failing, or a method that proves to be ineffective.

The Battle In Our Minds

Many times we look at other leaders and think, They’ve got it all together, or I wish I was in their shoes. Well, for most leaders I know, and certainly for me, leadership is not as rosy as it may appear. On more days than not, I have to fight against the voices—I have to fight them aggressively—the ones that taunt, Is this really worth it? Should you really believe in people? Should you even believe in yourself? When you peel back the layers of a leader’s mind, you find we have a raging battle all the time, a battle we must learn to win daily.

The Internal Struggle

Here is what I see leaders do when they have lost the struggle within, when the pain is too much and their emotions take the reins.

  1. Frustration—When I hear a leader say, “Oh, I am frustrated about (fill in the blank),” I know they have not learned to harness their frustration, a consuming emotion that results when we are unable to deal with issues and problems. Frustration resolves nothing. When I get frustrated, I know I have entered a zone of unfiltered rambling of emotions that is likely to take me places that hurt others. For me, frustration conjures up the image of a cranky three-year-old kid who is hungry and sleepy. When adults act like kids by giving in to frustration, we look ridiculous, and we solve absolutely nothing. People, and especially leaders, who are easily frustrated are regarded as immature.
  2. Quitting—What we think and do in moments of despair or defeat will define our success.  Why? Because failure and defeat are inevitable. They are to be expected. If every low point you reach elicits a response to quit, then we will never achieve much. Remember, the higher you reach, the farther you push yourself outside your comfort zone, the more likely you are to get your ego bruised and fracture your internal support system. Determine for yourself, there is no quitting. Ever.
  3. Venting—This is a big one. The accepted wisdom is that if you don’t feel good, it is okay to vent—to share the issues, unfiltered, to a trusted member of your inner circle. When we feel we just cannot deal with the issues, we spill to those around us: rant, rant, rant. My goal is not to do that with those I love. Instead, it is to deal with the hit, then reflect and make a plan, to rise above my desire to quit or rant. What I aim to share with others is my plan to get out of this situation. If we must share things with others, we should share how we are rising up and out.
  4. Bad Attitude—A few weeks ago, I received bad news twice in one week. In the past, something like that would have had significant effects on my attitude toward myself and toward others. I would have become more snappy and more judgmental. That must not happen. For this reason, I have trained myself to always be aware of my responses to difficult news or circumstances.

Healthy Responses to Failure

Here are healthier responses to failure:

  1. STOP—Briefly. Allow yourself a little time to be down. I give myself only 24 hours to wallow in my sorrows. After that, I get a good sleep, and I focus on how to move forward.
  2. GRIND—This is the process we must apply to problems. Rather than bottle them inside until they accumulate and explode, we must keep them inside in order to deal with them. “Grind” them to non-existence. Move them from the “problem” category, where they are unsolvable, unmanageable, and undoable, to a new category: “resolved issues.” How do we do that? How do we resolve in our minds a one billion dollar failure? The answer does not lie in one principle, but in tens and hundreds of principles that layer on top of one another—principles we learn from and experiment with. Here is the bottom line, if we cannot apply wisdom to a problem, then we cannot grind it. If that happens, it will result in unfavorable emotions and actions.
  3. MOVE—Move forward. When something bad happens to you, remember this: Allow yourself a short period to mourn (STOP). Then make a plan to deal with it (GRIND). Finally, take a step. MOVE on.

My mentor, Reverend Peter Rahme, wrote about how we should not live in the “what if.” What if I had not failed? This question keeps us in the past feeling guilty and sorry for ourselves. What if this business does not take off? This question keeps us from starting and taking risks. We must instead live in the “what is.” “What is” prompts us to live in reality and deal with what is happening and thus move things forward. I invite you to visit Reverend Rahme’s Facebook page for GraceThrough Devotionals.

Your response to negative thoughts and negative events in your life is crucial to your effectiveness as a leader. 

Your Friend,
Wes Saade MD Signature

For Further Reading:

When Leaders Fail, People Suffer
Why Leaders Fail

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