As a leader, how do you respond to defeat and failure? Do they demoralize you? Do they tempt you to throw up your hands in resignation and cause you to quit after an unforeseen setback?
Socrates said to know thyself, and how a leader confronts defeat is an outstanding “poker tell” into understanding their psychology and leadership style. Are you one of those leaders that will claim all the credit when it comes to victory, but when you taste failure, you immediately seek out scapegoats and people to blame?
So much of leadership training is focused on motivating your team in order to accomplish victory and success. But what happens if instead you lead them to failure and defeat? Imagine having a group of people all staring at you, each recognizing that you’re the leader of the group, and each looking for an explanation after experiencing a crushing and demoralizing defeat.
How one decides to cope with failure is what often separates great leaders from the mediocre, and there was no leader who better understood this fact than President Teddy Roosevelt. Take these words from President Roosevelt, write them down on a piece of paper, and put them into your wallet.
Even better, when a gifted leader does experience a crushing defeat, and their team naturally looks to them for an explanation and guidance, being able to recite President Roosevelt’s lesson on leadership might be exactly what they need to hear.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Learning from defeat is what separates the “wheat from the chaff” when it comes to those who believe themselves to be great leaders. Those who have experienced nothing but victory and success throughout their careers will often implode when confronted with failure, while leaders who have been properly tested and tempered know exactly how defeat should be perceived.
The old saying “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” could be used to help explain how a gifted leader should view defeat. But it also begs the question, how does defeat actually make us stronger? Defeat paves the way for future success through applying the doctrine of backwards-mapping.
No leader wants to experience crushing failure. That’s understandable. But the psychological apprehension we have towards the idea that our best efforts might lead to stinging defeat has blinded us to the concept of defeat stewardship as well as the necessity of embracing backwards-mapping.
The aversion we feel towards failure has to be reconciled with the real world, especially the hyper-competitive world of business. We don’t like focusing on the possibility of defeat, but a few common sense questions might help us understand why it’s so important to study.
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A) According to the Gallup Business Journal, about 50% of businesses fail within the first five years of operation. If an entrepreneur falls victim to this statistic, how should they respond to such a crushing defeat?
B) Does your company land every contract or project they make a bid for? How does your company respond when confronted with failure? As a leader, do you claim sole victory when a contract is won, while claiming no responsibility and shifting blame when confronted with defeat?
C) Despite your team’s talent, dedication, and hard work, what happens when honest mistakes or unforeseen problems lead to project failure?[/message][su_spacer]
Going back to President Roosevelt’s brilliant insight into leadership, few successful business leaders rise to the top without their faces being marred by sweat, dust, and blood. While no one likes defeat and failure, perhaps what separates these leaders from the pack is their understanding that defeats often present us with our greatest learning opportunities.
If a leader embraces the philosophy of backwards-mapping, they understand that defeats are case studies that provide invaluable organizational R&D for future success. Far from taking it personally or blaming their staff (especially if they know their staff is talented, hardworking, and motivated), defeats are actually the cornerstones to permanent and sustainable growth and profitability.
The hierarchical, top-down approach to leadership that is so often glorified in corporate America (and which can often breed complacency and stagnation) is replaced by a loosely-knit but highly disciplined business model that stresses flexibility, adaptability, as well as an obsessive focus on innovation and fine-tuning profitable best practices.
In embracing this model, proven project and departmental leaders become battle-tested sergeants, and their jobs aren’t simply limited to leading their respective teams. Like any good sergeant, their job is to also keep their ear to the ground and create organizational feedback loops that are grounded upon emerging trends, competitive strategies, tweaking best practices (especially when those best practices confront situational failure), as well as ensuring that orders and directives issued by company officer are being properly enforced and synthesized throughout the entire organization.