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Perspectives: Great Leaders “Fail Forward”

by Steve Adubato, Ph.D. for NJTV

Great leaders have the ability to take a loss or rejection and turn it into something positive. Losing or being rejected is not failure in itself. Rather, true failure is a question of how you choose to deal with a particular situation. We see it all the time as professionals, whether it’s our business that goes under, a major deal that falls apart or a personal loss. How we communicate in these intense and sometimes very emotional situations can have a big impact on our future ability to lead productive and meaningful careers.

In order to be a truly strong leader, you must know how to effectively and graciously deal with loss or rejection. With this in mind, consider the following leadership and communication tips and tools as to how to “fail forward” and have a positive attitude when your efforts come up short after giving it your best:

  • Resist the urge to blame others for a failing outcome. Why? Because it sounds like sour grapes. No one is inspired or motivated by hearing a leader say that it was someone else’s fault as to why things didn’t turn out right. Your audience is looking to you for strength and moral support. They don’t want to hear you complain as if you were a victim in all this. When they do, they only feel worse, which is the opposite of what strong leaders do.
  • Gather yourself emotionally. Clearly, communicating under such intense circumstances as losing your business, an election or a key client is not easy. Being rejected in any venue is highly emotional. However, even though it is okay to shed some tears, it is not okay to completely lose it. You can’t fall apart to the point where your anger takes control or you can’t even speak because your emotions have gotten the best of you. I know it is easier said than done, but strong leaders must prepare for the distinct possibility that rejection and/or failure is very real and ask themselves beforehand, “How will I deal with failure if it were to occur?” While you won’t know exactly how you will react until it happens, it will be something you have thought through before that moment.
  • Once your immediate disappointment and pain begins to subside, start to put your energy into figuring out how you can take this experience and learn from it. More specifically, write down exactly what you will and won’t do in the future based on this failure or rejection when faced with a comparable circumstance. Doing this will have a powerful impact on your leadership and communication style and ultimately increase your odds of being more successful next time around.
  • Even when you fail, it is essential that team members know how much you appreciate their efforts. It is easy to do this when you win, but in many ways it is even more important that you communicate your appreciation when things don’t turn out so well. Further, it is critical that you genuinely congratulate the winner. Being gracious and dignified is essential in these circumstances because remember, you are not a failure as a person, but rather you have fallen short in this particular situation. You will live to fight another day, so how you handle this situation is critical to how you will be perceived in the future when you inevitably get back in the game.

If you’ve ever failed, been rejected or lost (I know I have many times), write to me at sadubato@aol.com and share how you dealt with it.

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