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Henley Leadership Group Blog

Recovering From The Sting Of Failure

Sting Of Failure HS

Failure is at least a little uncomfortable for all of us, and that’s because it brings up feelings that we typically try to avoid in life. In his article Teaching Smart People How to Learn, Chris Argyris says there are four things we try to avoid when experiencing a failure: embarrassment, threat, feeling vulnerable, and feeling incompetent.But the reality is, we are in the midst of a collective, global ordeal. Things are changing and changing fast. Technology has and will continue to impact the very essence of the way we work. The Great Resignation has people asking if their job is the right fit for them. Work from home and work from anywhere seems like it is here to stay, for the near future at least. And the ongoing pandemic continues to cause personal and organizational starts and stops that we simply aren’t prepared for. Mistakes and failures are bound to happen. We don’t know this landscape or what will unfold next. 

Yet so many leaders shy away from learning through mistakes and failure.  It stings.  This is when it’s good to remember that all people, even great people, suffer the sting of failure.  

Several weeks ago, the world watched Mikaela Shiffrin tip her skis out of the starting gate and onto the slalom course. Within seconds she missed the fourth and fifth turns and skied out of the competition. It was painful to witness. She sat down in the snow and lowered her head into her hands. 

Her public failure dwarfed what most leaders will have to face. Hers was breathtaking, especially in light of her personal tragedy - the sudden death of Mikaela’s father two years ago. His impact on her life, as both a skier and a daughter, was outsized. Matthew Futterman writes in the New York Times that her father, a competitive skier in college, “had long served as a calming and irreverent presence for Shiffrin, one step removed from her harried life on the World Cup circuit.”

It makes sense that she would have lost her footing. Losing a parent deeply affects us. 

Here’s the truth: We are all out over our skis on unfamiliar terrain right now. We are finding our way. And it’s so hard to be a beginner, to be a learner. But none of us are seasoned in this reality we find ourselves in, which means failure is a lot more likely. 

How to learn from failure? Here are three tips:

1.     Practice self-compassion and let the driving and proving and performing go. For just a bit. Realizing one’s humanity is a way of opening the heart and the mind so that new learning can take place. If one is defensive or guarded, learning is more likely to bounce off than to take root and be integrated. 

2.     Avoid the “Doom Loop”. This is the familiar diatribe that goes on in a leader’s mind that makes everything worse.  It’s important to recognize that obsessing, analyzing, and fretting won’t help.  Best to talk to someone with more objectivity and get their take on the situation and possible next steps.  

3.     Write down what happened, what was done or said, and what might be done differently next time. This kind of reflection is called “double-loop learning” and allows for perspective to shift.  Keeping a journal is an important skill and tool in a leader’s toolkit.

Fortunately, the sting of failure does recede, and we move forward, one step at a time.

Previously published on Forbes