Bumps in the Road: Recovering From Leadership Setbacks

By Doug Lennick and Chuck Wachendorfer

Most leadership setbacks happen, at least partially, because leaders make mistakes. Unfortunately, high achieving leaders are often intolerant of their own mistakes. That’s because they are congenitally disposed to being hard on themselves. If you have a track record as a high-performing perfectionist leader, the only way to let go of unforgiving self-expectations is to reframe your perception of mistakes from seeing them as unacceptable failures to opportunities for learning and growth. 

Four Steps To Recovery

As we explain in our book, DON’T WAIT FOR SOMEONE ELSE TO FIX IT, recovering from a leadership setback begins with understanding its source. Some setbacks are beyond your control. For example, many competent leaders were among the estimated millions of workers who lost their jobs in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic and related shutdowns

In other instances, leadership setbacks sometimes happen when, despite your best efforts, you lack the skills or competence to fulfill your role at the level your superiors expect. This type of leadership setback can be difficult to accept because when you’re working hard to do a good job, you expect to be rewarded for your efforts. But working hard isn’t the same as producing excellent results. 

Or a leadership setback can strike because your behavior has fallen out of alignment with your values or purpose. For example, leadership misconduct is an increasingly common cause of senior executive derailments

As painful as setbacks can be, they are often powerful tools for learning and growth. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill’s maxim, “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” we would add, “Never let a good setback go to waste.” With the help of the 4 Rs—recognize, reflect, reframe, and respond, you can recover—stronger, wiser, and more purposeful than before. 

Recognize Your Response

Not everybody responds to a setback in the same way. You may struggle with feelings of failure or you may be angry about the perceived injustice of being “punished” for a situation you didn’t control. You might blame others for the setback. No matter what you feel at first, recognize that your initial feelings are standard parts of a grieving process. But it’s not these feelings themselves that are problematic. It’s hanging on to them, being unable or unwilling to let those feelings go, that keeps you from recovering after a setback. So, the first step in recovering from a setback is to call on self-awareness to keep track of where you are in the grieving process.

Paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, and behavior is never more critical than when you’re in the throes of a personal crisis. It’s ironic that by becoming more aware of your reactions to a setback, you’re better able to release them. Using the tools of recognition, such as The Freeze Game which we describe below, will set the stage for you to reflect on more positive approaches to life after your setback. Make it a point to play several times daily.

Exercise: Playing the Freeze Game After a Leadership Setback

Call a timeout from whatever you’re doing. Ask yourself:

  1. How do I feel about the situation I’m in? (e.g., fearful, angry, sad, accepting, hopeful)
  2. What are my attitudes and beliefs about the situation I’m in? (e.g., It’s all my fault; It’s not my fault; It’s a disaster; When a window closes, a door opens)
  3. How am I reacting physically, and how am I behaving in response to this situation? (e.g., My blood pressure is high; I’m not sleeping; I’m being irritable with others; I’m kinder to others in difficult circumstances.

Reflect On Your Setback

Once you’ve acknowledged and accepted your experience, the best way to move forward after a setback is to be reflective. Although reflection includes figuring out what caused your setback, reflection does not mean brooding about the past. You want to understand how you may have contributed to your setback to avoid making similar mistakes in the future. But it’s the future that your reflection should focus on the most. 

When reflecting on a setback, consider these questions:

  1. How have my attitudes or behavior contributed to my setback?
  2. Given what I now know, how might I have responded differently in this situation? 
  3. Have I stayed true to universal principles and my values? If not, what can I do today to act in alignment with principles and values?
  4. What is my life purpose, and how can I stay true to my purpose despite this setback?
  5. What are my goals for moving beyond this setback? Do I want to resume my previous role, or should I aim for a new position that better fulfills my purpose?
  6. Who can give me additional insight into the situation and feedback about how I might reframe and respond to it? (e.g., my boss, a mentor, or in some cases, a person or team that has been affected by my behavior)
  7. What are the opportunities for learning that this setback has opened up for me? (e.g., This experience could help me become a better people manager.)

Reframing For The Future

A successful leadership comeback does not necessarily mean landing the same role you had before. For instance, losing one CEO job, then getting another is hardly the only definition of success. Your most successful comeback could very well be an entirely different leadership role. If you make a career-limiting mistake, use it as an opportunity to examine your deepest life interests. You may discover that such a setback is a gift, which gives you an opening to pursue a dramatically different leadership role—one that offers you far more enjoyment and meaning than before. 

An overarching theme regarding leadership setbacks is to reframe them as growth opportunities rather than disasters. Reframing harvests the fruit of your reflections. Reflecting either reinforces your commitment to a worthwhile purpose or leads you to formulate a new, less self-centered, and more service-oriented purpose. Reframing allows you to let go of attitudes that could keep you stuck in an unproductive past. Then reframing creates a space where you can move confidently into a new future. 

When reframing, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is the story about this setback that I can legitimately tell myself and others that provides the best path to a different and better future? 
  2. How can I change my interpretation of this situation and similar situations that will enhance my leadership effectiveness in my current organization or elsewhere? (e.g., Avoid making negative assumptions about an employee’s request based on previous experiences with them or other employees. Instead, give employees the benefit of the doubt and, whenever possible, be kind)
  3. What ideas and attitudes could I adopt to create options for dealing more effectively with this and similar situations in the future?

Respond With Courage

Responding may seem to be the simplest part of rebounding from a leadership setback. However, simple doesn’t mean easy. Simple does mean that once you’ve reframed your situation, the actions you need to take to recover from adversity are straightforward. 

Research tells us that the more serious the setback, the less likely a leader will recover and resume a leadership position of equal stature. But statistics can be misleading. For example, just over a third of fired CEOs land in other CEO positions. Such was the case with Jamie Dimon. Fired from his position as CFO of Citigroup in 1998, he was hired in 2000 as CEO of Bank One. When JPMorgan Chase bought Bank One in 2004, Dimon became the merged company’s president and chief operating officer. A year later, he became CEO of JPMorgan Chase. 

As heartening as Dimon’s career trajectory may be to leaders under fire, we do not define recovery from leadership setbacks as success in landing an equivalent position. The most satisfying recoveries may happen when a setback prompts a purpose-driven change of career direction. 

As a leader, your mistakes and failures will significantly impact your followers. So do your best to respond effectively. Share your reflections and reframing with your stakeholders, such as the team members, mentors, and followers affected. 

For instance, ask your mentors for advice before taking action. Initiate a meeting with your manager to share what you have learned from the mistake or failure, and review what you plan to do to repair any damage you’ve done and prevent similar problems in the future. 

Also, meet with anyone affected by your mistake or failure. Accept responsibility for iany adverse effects you’re caused. Share your plan to prevent similar situations in the future and solicit their feedback about how you want to respond.

As a leader, the choices you make about dealing with your mistakes and others’ missteps set the table for how you lead in good times and bad. Dealing honestly with your own mistakes engenders a sense of humility that makes you more tolerant of the mistakes of those around you and serves as an investment in the future of your organization and team.

About the Authors

Doug LennickDoug Lennick, co-author of DON’T WAIT FOR SOMEONE ELSE TO FIX IT, is the founding CEO of think2perform, a high-performance leadership development firm serving small and large organizations in a variety of industries. He has been in leadership roles for nearly 40 years and is widely recognized as an expert in the science of human behavior. You can learn more at: http://www.think2perform/

Chuck WachendorferChuck Wachendorfer, co-author of DON’T WAIT FOR SOMEONE ELSE TO FIX IT, is President of Distribution at think2perform. He is a renowned leadership development professional and has worked with clients including American Express, Wells Fargo, Comerica Bank, TD Wealth of Canada, Charles Schwab, and others. His insights on leadership have been featured extensively in media such as CNN Money, Forbes, Fortune, and The Denver Post. You can learn more at: http://www.think2perform/


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