When Leaders Fail

by Alli Polin on January 11, 2013

success doenst happen overnight - leaders face failure and thrive

For the past month my husband has pushed himself incredibly hard at work.  He’s self-motivated and remarkably driven so it wasn’t a deadline that he was working towards, it was the realization of an idea.

He would leave in the mornings well before 5:30 AM, pop home for dinner, and back to the office until the wee hours many days a week.  It wasn’t a question of if he was working the weekend; it was which day.   Even when he was home, I’d notice his eyes would occasionally glaze over and I could tell that while he was physically with us, he was mentally still at the office.

Despite his super-human push, the idea is still and idea, still on the edge of life, but not yet there.  He feels like he let down people at work, but in reality, the person he most let down, is himself.

As leaders and innovators, pushing the limits of what’s been done before us gives us energy – it’s exciting!  Chasing a vision of what can be is exceptionally powerful.  Believing and enrolling others in a shared vision takes a spark and turns it into a flame.  For leaders, however, oftentimes it feels like the flame is racing towards either a celebration of fireworks, or the sonic boom of defeat.

Truth is, there is something to celebrate regardless if the project ends with trumpets singing a song of success or somewhere short of the self-imposed finish line. 

Great leaders respond to failure with the knowledge that there is more to success than hitting all the dates on a work plan.  Leaders succeed when they embrace the gifts of failure to move forward with more information, ideas, creativity and drive than ever before to continue on towards their goals.

Even when leaders fail, they’ve won when they embrace the following principles:

Innovation isn’t easy

Innovation takes time to conceptualize, design, develop, test and gather support.  Don’t forget, what you’re trying to do has never been done before.  If it were easy, someone before you would have figured it out.  Go easy on yourself over the bumps along the road; innovation brings a long drive ahead.

Big things take time

Overnight success never happens overnight.  The bigger the challenge, the more time it will take.  You may want to show the world what you and your team can do in a month or two, but desire and timelines infrequently go hand in hand.  Give yourself time to get there.

Celebrate along the way

Pushing towards a big end goal is incredibly frustrating when it feels like the finish line is not getting any closer.  You’re wrong.  Every day you’re making progress, however small, and moving closer towards your vision.  Celebrate progress! Celebrate milestones!  Take the time to reflect on all you and your team have accomplished and be surprised how far you’ve come.

Don’t forget about your team

You are not Benjamin Franklin flying kites in a storm and discovering electricity.  Consider yourself the spark in an innovation engine.  Engines are made up of many unique parts that together create a powerful drive and force to move ideas forward.  You are not alone!  You can’t figure out where to go next?  Tap into the brilliance of your team.

Learning is power

For ages, leaders have heard that there is great learning in failure but most don’t want to do the post-mortem to capture the lessons; they just want to succeed.  Instead of being frustrated or annoyed that the path to success is difficult, learn from it.  Use every bit of pain and knowledge and feed it into your next step.  With every failed attempt, you’re one attempt closer to success.

Persistence is key

Leaders don’t give up on a vision when the path is longer and more challenging than anticipated.  Be a leader that takes all the learning, wakes up every morning, and tries again.  Kick defeat in the butt and continue to bring passion, enthusiasm and fire to the table every day.  When you believe anything is possible, it is.

You may have failed, but you are not a failure.  There is a time to throw in the towel, when you finally discover that your vision isn’t possible.  That day isn’t today.   Turn to your team, trusted advisors, friends, and family and rev up your engine.

It’s time to keep going.

As a leader, what are some of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned about failure?  How do you keep going when progress is slow and you run into obstacles left and right?  Tell us in the comments below – we can all learn from your experience!

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