Amanda Silver

Leadership Coach

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Amanda Silver

Amanda is a leadership development consultant, trainer, and executive coach with over 20 years of experience in developing the effectiveness of leaders and organizations. She is passionate about creating the conditions that allow individuals, teams and organizations to thrive. Amanda’s clients include higher education institutions, public school districts, social service agencies, advocacy organizations, philanthropic institutions, faith-based organizations and entrepreneurs. She is also the creator of the Women’s Leadership Incubator which launched its second cohort in February 2023.

Failure Happens in Leadership. Here’s How to Deal.

Rise above failure by not allowing it to define you.

Dealing with failure and criticism is the hardest part of leadership. If you lead an initiative that tanks, or launch a program that doesn’t garner the outcomes you want, you’re left wondering where to go next. Particularly for women, who are both more likely to be perfectionists and are more likely to be judged harshly when they don’t achieve success, failure can feel like the ultimate four-letter word.

Research, however, shows that failure is essential to success. The key is to stay in motion. A paper published in Nature illustrates that leaders who ultimately succeed try again fairly quickly after a failure. Those who wait longer to try again are more likely to fail again.

So let’s discuss how to respond to failure by getting right back on your feet—and remember who you are as a leader.

Find your Emotional Center

First, manage your immediate, visceral response to a failure. Keeping your composure in the moment

allows you the resilience you need to lead through it. Here’s how to do it:

1. Feel your feelings deeply.

Allow yourself to feel everything the situation brings up. Notice how you feel emotionally, mentally, and physiologically. The space you give yourself will free you to move forward.

It’s okay to fall apart privately as you do this. If the situation allows, take some time to yourself, whether

it’s a few moments or an evening, to process your feelings.

2. Recognize what you can control.

Don’t spiral through all the things you wish you’d have done differently. Name the things you can controlor influence now. You can control your response, your attitude, and your mindset.

3. Remember your resilience.

Astrophysicist Erika Hamden spent ten years working with a research team to build FIREBall, a telescope that would hang from a massive balloon in the stratosphere. After deployment, it crash-landed in the desert of New Mexico. It’s tough to move on when you identify strongly with your project and haveinvested countless hours in it, as she had. But such moments will remind you of your resilience.

Hamden affirms in her TED talk: “I got through that project and mission, and I can get through anything.”

That’s true for you, too.

4. Practice self-compassion.

Often we have an “imaginary negative audience” after failure. A chorus of critique echoes in our heads. In reality, others often feel empathetic or aren’t dwelling on it at all. These voices are actually coming from your own inner critic. What would you say to a friend in this moment? Give yourself the same compassion, as Rachel Simmons

writes in The New York Times. “Self-compassion is the practice of offering yourself the same grace you’d give to others—and it’s linked to reduced shame and anxiety in the aftermath of a setback,” she asserts.

Remind yourself that everyone goes through this.

Respond Like the Leader You Are

Whether you fail doesn’t determine whether you’re a capable leader. How you respond does. Here’s how a strong leader handles failure.

1. Gather information.

Listen closely to other people’s impressions of the situation. Ask for feedback and listen. Debrief the situation as a team, if appropriate. If someone delivered criticism that was hard to hear, request a follow-up conversation once you’ve composed yourself. Write the feedback down, listen closely, and take time for yourself to think it through.

2. Conduct a root cause analysis.

Assess why the failure happened. Was this a one-off event? Was it caused by a major oversight or a fundamental flaw? Synthesize everything you’ve gathered about what happened.

Use the “5 Whys” technique to find the root of the issue. This means asking, “Why did this happen?”

then following your answer with another “Why?”—and so on, until you’ve asked “why” five (or more)

times. You’ll land on the foundational cause of the problem, which will give you direction for your next steps.

3. Take accountability.

After determining how you contributed personally, apologize for your role in what happened. Tell your team and other stakeholders what happened and why. State your plan to remediate the situation or pursue a better course of action.

4. Help employees manage their own challenging emotions.

Employees may be feeling the effects of a collective failure, too. Help them manage their emotions to move forward with resilience as a team.

  • Create psychological safety by asserting your belief in each person’s abilities.
  • Offer a space for everyone to share their feelings—and share your own with the team.
  • Emphasize that failing together will help you grow as a team.

Then, launch into action.

5. Create a plan.

Set a course of action. Identify opportunities for growth and improvement and how to leverage them.Try the “5 Hows” technique to drive toward a solution if you like. The process models the “5 Whys”—in response to each answer, ask “How” again. Ultimately, you’ll reach a specific idea for how to move forward.

 

Set the Course for the Long-Term

Sometimes a failure illuminates the need for bigger-picture changes. Does it fit into a pattern or reflect a fundamental shortcoming? Here’s what to consider as you move forward.

Reflect on your values and priorities.

Examine the values driving your work, especially if you’re seeing a pattern of failure. Are you living the

values that are most important to you? What gaps exist between what you believe in and your actual priorities?

Consider structural changes to make.

Could the failure have been prevented? Reflect on whether enhancing one of these areas could boost your chances of success:

  • Workflow processes
  • Communication norms
  • Strategies for monitoring outcomes
  • Accountability processes
  • Training protocols

Team members may have thoughts on this topic, too. Make sure you’re hearing and documenting their insights

Keep a “failure resumé.”

Track lessons learned in a “failure resumé“ or “CV of failures”—it will remind you that these are achievements, too, because of all the lessons they represent. Record lessons learned from each of these experiences.

Consult with your personal board of advisors.

Talk with people you trust and respect on how to grow and move forward. They’ll be sure to have tidbits of wisdom tailored to your experience, and their belief in you will help restore your confidence.

At the end of the day, failure will happen in your leadership. How you move through it will stretch your abilities, but ultimately help you refine your leadership skills. And best of all, you’ll always learn some important lessons to take into your next season.

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