How To Handle Failure

You Lost, You Failed. What’s Next?

Losing and Failing. Something we all experience in our lives, sometimes big and sometimes small, but is losing the end of the world? And how do leaders deal with setbacks?

Look at our political party leaders: Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, and the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, and we cannot ignore President Donald Trump, all have had major setbacks in the recent past but still remain leaders of their respective parties.

Maybe society at large is becoming more accepting of human error, and more tolerant of genuine mistakes whilst attempting to do the right thing – maybe?

Sorry has become the Hardest Word to Say

Currently, a very public political setback can be extremely difficult to recover from, the media and the opposition will seize on every gaffe and slip of the tongue. Unsolicited advice comes from every corner with some anonymously screaming on social media for “heads to roll”.

Nowadays in politics, it would appear that there are as many critics from within your own party, let alone your real opposition. It’s not long before radio and TV interviewers are asking the dreaded question “are you considering your position?” There is nothing more daunting or damning than vocal internal dissent.

Every movement you make is analysed again and again. The words you use, your body language, eye contact, everything is under forensic scrutiny. Some crack under this pressure.

The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has had a torrid time with Brexit. She’s had resignations of cabinet ministers, lost crucial votes in parliament and still has no clear solution for the way forward. And if that wasn’t enough, so many other things are going wrong concurrently, but no apologies are forthcoming.

It’s clear that she wants to be seen as “strong and stable”, but I’m not sure any of the electorate buy that anymore.

Robert Shrimsley captures her perfectly in the Financial Times. “It is hard not to feel sympathy for Theresa May, but it is worth making the effort. Narrow, rigid, unimaginative, sly, secretive and wholly lacking in the political skills necessary to win over voters or build alliances, rarely can a leader have looked less suited to the task before them.”

Jeremy Corbyn has had just as torrid a time with the unseemly anti-Semitism row in the Labour Party. Some of the vitriol aimed at Labour MPs has been truly awful, but again, the leadership is struggling to apologise.

The extremely smooth and polished Justin Trudeau, hit the rocks recently with four very public and personally hurtful resignations, both claiming inappropriate pressure was put on them by “his office” to go softer on a public company. He eventually fessed up to having made mistakes but still, no apology.

Its noticeable that politicians hardly ever apologise. Why is saying sorry so difficult? Mainly because it signifies an acceptance that they were indeed wrong. But just maybe, apologising might be seen today as a sign of strength?

Saying Sorry Always Helps

When the leader takes his team into the deepest and darkest part of the jungle, having suffered three days and nights of constant bites from various insects, in the hottest and sweatiest of environments.

The leader eventually decides to climb a tall tree and look around to get his bearings. He soon shouts back down “sorry guys, wrong jungle”.

Whilst many are frustrated, all admire and trust him a lot more for being brutally honest and open with them.

President Trump has a different approach, he appears never able to apologise, no matter how wrong, hurtful, distasteful or petty he has been. The worrying thing is that it appears to be becoming acceptable or at least it’s no longer a big issue and certainly no longer a resigning issue.

“I think apologising is a great thing”, he said on NBC’s “Tonight Show” in 2015, “but you have to be wrong. I will absolutely apologise, sometime in the hopefully distant future, if I’m ever wrong.”

Business is No Different

Leaders in business understand that overcoming adversity is of the utmost importance.

They also have setbacks and losses that require tough calls and the human touch. The ability to say sorry to the wronged parties immediately and authentically can go a long way to turnaround a very difficult situation. Yet, many business leaders also share this inability to say sorry.

The excellent blogger and author, Marty Fukuda, says that “how a leader handles set-backs and defeat often tells a bigger story about their leadership abilities than their big wins.”

Here are 5 ways that Fukuda says that leaders can overcome a business setback or defeat:

Get Back to the Basics

One of the most common reasons that leaders occasionally stumble is that they lose sight of what caused success in the past. Through lack of focus or direction, or from arrogance from past success, a leader might derail from the fundamentals.

Re-evaluate your Preparation

If you’ve lost out on a new account or captained a failed rollout at your company, one thing to go back to and examine is how you prepared. Did you put in the effort on the front end? Sometimes you’ll find it’s the set-up that propels success versus the execution itself.

Watch the Tape

In the ring analogy, a fighter would watch the video with his trainer and look for takeaways for the next fight. Business leaders don’t have the luxury of watching a video replay of a tough loss, but you can reconstruct past events, and re-evaluate.

Prepare for a Re-match

Great leaders should have a difficult time accepting defeat, and that fact alone helps make them great. They don’t accept a single defeat as defining, “I can’t beat this opponent.” Instead, they look at it as a bigger challenge, “How can I come back and defeat them?”

Get Back in the Ring

The best leaders don’t waste time doubting themselves. For some, a defeat is something that takes them a while to mentally get over. For the most effective, after defeat, they quickly re-engage the battle.

Common Mistakes to Failure

In regards to mistakes that leaders can make, Joelle K Jay says that, “The fact is, every day, millions of people drive onto the fast-lane and race their lives away – ironically missing the fact that everything they are doing to try to improve their life is actually running them into the ground. The work weeks get longer, the stress levels rise, and talented leaders burn out or move on.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. Doing less can be much more productive and fulfilling than doing more. Don’t lose sight of your vision.

The Blame Game in Business

Amy Edmondson says that “The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible. Yet organisations that do it well are extraordinarily rare.” She analysed many companies and saw that failure can much of the time lead to no real demonstrable change within these organisations.

She says that “learning from organisational failures is anything but straightforward. Leaders can begin by understanding how the blame game gets in the way.”

The old stereotypical notions of embracing failure’s lessons perhaps need to be rethought …

Sometimes you have to roll with the punches and take yourself out of a situation to look at failure objectively, deal with it and move on.

Back to Apologising

An individual’s private apology, if sincere and well timed, may draw the sting from debilitating feelings of humiliation, guilt and vengeance. Public remorse has more impact, but may sound opportunistic: a political trick, or a showbiz stunt.

Successful apologies can be seen as a tactic of international or national politics, particularly when a new leader wants to distance himself from past mistakes (their own, or preferably other people’s).

So, what makes a public apology successful? Melissa Nobles, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who specialises in apology, says that they can give official backing to a particular view of history, help contain political grievances peacefully and encourage public-spiritedness among alienated parts of the population.

But apologies don’t come free.

True – but many get stuck thinking it will take a lot more than an apology to make amends. Whilst this is nearly always the case, don’t hesitate and waste critical time mulling it over, a swift and authentic apology can be very powerful to getting things moving back in the right direction.

Top Tips

• Always show your remorse over your inappropriate actions
• Clearly acknowledge the hurt that your actions have caused to someone else
• An apology opens a dialogue between yourself and the other person
• Apologising acknowledges that you engaged in unacceptable behavior
• It helps you rebuild trust and re-establish your relationship with the other person

Apologising might be the right step even when you feel that you are not wrong. It just means that you value your relationship more than your ego.

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