The following is an excerpt from Chapter 18 of Learning Leadership Through Loss.
Setbacks on the job happen to all leaders. It’s not a matter of if they will occur; it’s a matter of when and what and how. Setbacks, part of life, may feel like we’re losing control. Although irritating and discouraging, they can be learning experiences for even the most seasoned professionals. By their nature they remove the cataracts from our eyes and let us see things we never saw before. They help us view and comprehend the bigger picture. If we’re amenable, they can make us strong.
Setbacks come in various forms. Your star performer fails to complete a major project on time. A brand new hot shot product doesn’t sell. Funding for a necessary service doesn’t come through. An envious colleague betrays a confidence. A Board member undermines your efforts. Somebody else lands the promotion you’ve wanted for years. These are just some examples of the kinds of setbacks people in leadership positions must endure and accept.
Dealing with setbacks requires flexibility, resilience, and perspective. It takes a certain amount of physical, mental, and emotional energy. Setbacks are a test of your character and will. When they dash your world, you can crumble or quit. Or, you can pick yourself up and keep going. One way to do that is to enter what I call a neutral zone—the gap between joy and misery. View your current setback, awful as it may seem, as a fact that is neither positive nor negative but rather something that just is. This radical mindset shift can influence the final outcome. Setbacks always bring challenge, but they don’t have to bring defeat.
Smart leaders expect setbacks. Savvy leaders, upon regaining their equilibrium, look for the benefits to these threatening events. You may be tougher and more tenacious. You have an opportunity to expand your capacity for compassion. Perhaps you discover an innovative spirit you didn’t know you had. Because of what you bear you serve as a role model for others as you explore options for going around, over, or through the obstacle. You show people how to prosper despite the twist of fate, the road block, the dirty pool. And–you have a story to share when the time is right. Success takes on new meaning.
Not sure how to rebound? An unknown author once wrote that breakdowns can create breakthroughs. My seven step process below can facilitate this happening for you:
Acknowledge the setback. Name it aloud. Don’t pretend it doesn’t exist by sticking your head in the sand or burying yourself in work. Let yourself feel the anger, helplessness, and fear associated with the setback. Write freely about it in a journal. Don’t hold back.
Talk about it. Share the situation with a trusted colleague, partner, or friend in a safe environment. When someone listens with her whole being, some of the burden is lifted from your shoulders. Invite that person to provide insights and possible solutions. Tell her you want to hear about her own experiences with setbacks and how she coped with them.
Avoid blame. Though it’s a natural response, blame doesn’t change the situation. Because it can ruin relationships and deplete your energy, blame often makes things worse. Get honest and determine if you played a role in the setback. Whether you did or didn’t, you may need to forgive someone else.
Look for the higher purpose. What do you know now that you didn’t know before you suffered the setback? Think about how you can use that new knowledge to your personal advantage and the advantage of your company. Who are you being now? Perhaps, as a result of the situation, you need to lead in a different or unique way. While the Divine didn’t give you the problem, a spiritual lesson may abide in it.
Revise your expectations. Setbacks can show you where you expected too much in the first place from a person, a group, a product, a process, or an opportunity. As a leader, your job is to minimize the chances for setbacks to occur at all. Take off your rosy colored glasses and look at everything around you the way it is. Identify your blind spots about favorite employees, an esteemed funder, outdated procedures, or a short time frame. Face reality.
Take responsible action. The best salve for setbacks is action. Refuse to be a victim who sulks in the corner. Review your resources and plan next steps based upon the information you have now. Decide what ought to be done in light of current circumstances and who should be involved. Carefully examine your reasons. Responsible, honorable action is always rewarded. Just don’t expect instant success.
Use humor. Laughter always helps. Even a forced smile can elevate your mood. As endorphins increase in your brain, you are better able to tolerate disappointments and deal with stress. As your anxiety level goes down, your ability to solve problems goes up. Humor removes some of the heaviness associated with setbacks, creating room for hope. Occasionally, give yourself permission to chuckle and joke. If you must, do it in secret.