Like many of you, early in my career I found that success came easily. I was led by a good group of people that put me in situations where I could learn, explore, grow and thrive. I worked hard, followed my core values, and mostly made the right decisions. My projects were challenging but always doable. I was surrounded by motivated teams that pulled together for the good of the initiatives. I somehow missed the bad projects. Success just seemed to be a given. Everything in life was golden.
As my career developed the projects became harder, the stakes higher and the risks ramped up exponentially. The easy successes that I had achieved were replaced by challenges that tested my boundaries. The rewards were substantial but the costs were great. Pressure was the norm – but hey, on the fast track this is part of the deal.
One day you run into a challenge that is bigger than you. A failure is faced that was not anticipated. You start questioning yourself, challenging your beliefs, and digging for answers. You’re the same person – it’s just that now there are doubts that seem to follow you around. There’s no escaping that sometimes, “bad things happen to good leaders”.
So what can you do if you reach this point? Below are a few actions to help you get over the hurdles. The hurt and sadness that you might feel will not easily vanish, but the key is to keep moving forward.
- Give yourself a break. You’re not the first (or last) smart, creative, ambitious leader to face failure. Lincoln, Edison, Einstein all suffered major setbacks and still managed to change the course of history. Steve Jobs suffered through the “Lisa” debacle, the clunky early version of the “Macintosh”, the “Next Cube”, and the loss of the company he co-founded. Yet, he somehow managed to overcome these failures and reshape the world. So give yourself some slack. Many of the smartest people in history have walked down the same path – you are not alone.
- Look for root cause. It’s important that we learn from our experiences. Learning leads to growth that will drive change. So take time to search for root cause. Find out why this happened – what you did right, what you can do better, and what you should stop doing. Be open to examining the facts with the goal being to uncover things that you can change. The past is gone, but its lessons live on for your benefit – find them, use them.
- Take time to recover. The common wisdom is to get right back into the action – to jump “back in the saddle”. I argue you need some time (whatever you can afford) to sort through your emotions. Take a short trip, visit your family, finish a project around the house – let your mind heal before you jump back in.
- Don’t listen to the negative voice in your head. Most of us engage in some type of self-talk. Often, failure leads to negative thinking that influences our emotions and moods. Negative self-talk further darkens and clouds our thinking creating a downward spiral. But by focusing on positives (past successes, accomplishments, relationships, etc.) and fighting against negative thoughts – we can change the direction of our self-talk.
- Lean on your support system. Hopefully there are people you can reach out to in tough times. You should look for support from your family, friends, classmates, co-workers, mentors, social groups and even your neighbors. Usually our first response to failure is to retreat inwards – but, it’s hard to clean-out our heads alone. Now is the time to reach out to others.
- Get professional help. There are times when it’s hard to pull yourself out of the depths in which you’ve fallen. It’s no sin. There are a variety of people there to help you. There are professional mentoring and coaching groups, career gurus, counselors, therapists, and even volunteer organizations that can help. To find them you need to do research, ask around for recommendations, question the potential providers, and then make an informed decision. There’s lot of help out there – please go find it.
Suffering a setback is never fun. But, it’s important to remember that most people over the course of their careers hit a few bumps in the road. However, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote we should, “Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.” The key is that we learn from failure and use the information to make us stronger and better able to deal with the challenges of the future.
“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.” ~ Truman Capote