Failure happens to all of us. And as leaders, how we deal with it is important – for ourselves, and for the lasting message it sends to others.
Recently we experienced one of our most public failures. Guy Harris and I were in our studio during what was supposed to be an awesome three hour live streaming web event.
We had hundreds registered. We had planned extensively, promoted it heavily and invested significantly in this event.
Then, when we went live, nothing happened for our viewers. Later, we got audio. Eventually, we got some video. Effectively, nothing useful was captured for replay or reuse.
This event has had me thinking about the role of failure in the working lives of leaders – both as human beings and as leaders. And as such I have crafted some thoughts for you from my reflection and learning. The ideas that follow fall into two time periods – during and after the failure, and from two perspectives, as an individual and a leader. I hope you find them helpful.
As the Failure Occurs
In my case, I was living the failure in real time for 3 hours. And during that time, not only was part of my team in the studio and in our office with me, but (for much of the time) my reactions were live for many others to see. I think in general I handled this part OK on the outside, but inside, frustration and disappointment were close to a boil.
Individual Advice
In the moment/time of the failure, you will feel and think many things.
You are upset and a whole range of emotions are swirling through your head and heart. If you try to deny them or talk yourself out of those feelings, it won’t likely work. Rather, acknowledge those feelings, and recognize that in the moment, acting on those feelings won’t help the situation or yourself.
Then, take a deep breath and focus on the situation and your team. There will be time and space for you to decompress, but right now focus on the situation and how to move through it.
Leadership Advice
Keep other focused on the future and on being proactive. If people are thinking about how to alleviate, recover from or fix the failure, their attitude and actions will be more positive too. Be calm and encourage them to do the same.
In the Aftermath
After our situation, we needed to think about recovery – to make up for our failure in the eyes of our Customers, but also to do what we could to deliver value to people who were trusting in us to deliver what we didn’t.
Individual Advice
Now that it is past, you can take a walk, vent your feelings to a third party, blow off steam or let your feelings show.
For a bit.
Then you need to let it go. It is now in the past – and while it can’t be changed, there are two big steps that will help you deal with your feelings and make the failure worthwhile: recovery and learning.
Whatever the failure was, what do you need to do to recover from, overcome, or even make lemonade from your failure lemons? This all starts with the question: now what can we do?
The failure was no fun and not something you want to happen again. Ask yourself some key questions, including:
• What did I learn from this?
• What should I avoid in the future?
• What would have reduced our risk?
• Knowing what I know now, what would I have done differently?
• How and when will I apply these lessons?
• What could I have done differently as a leader of this failure situation?
Leadership Advice
Your team was watching you during the flames, and they are watching later. Now is the time for you to help them focus on the future – because the past is past, and the work is now about what comes next. Get your team to think about the two things you have focused on: recovery and learning.
Gather the team to think about what can and needs to be done to recover from or overcome the failure. Help them move past the challenges and focus on what’s next. Their ideas and input will give you better ideas, and the conversation will help them flip their internal thoughts and help them move forward.
Once the recovery plan is in place, facilitate the learning part. Everyone will likely learn something on their own, but as leaders, we help everyone when we ask questions like these:
• What did we learn from this?
• What should we avoid in the future?
• What would have reduced our risk?
• Knowing what we know now, what would we have done differently?
• How and when will we apply these lessons?
If you facilitate the group with questions like these, the learning will be shared and become much more powerful for individuals and the organization in the future.
Final Thoughts
I have three over-riding lessons from this experience:
• Did you notice how my leadership advice closely tracks my individual advice? We can’t help our team move through a failure unless we are first able to deal with it ourselves. Get the right perspective personally, and you have a chance to help your team more successfully.
• This isn’t easy, but no one ever said leading was. Suck it up, do what is needed, and realize that is part of what you are getting paid to do.
• Recovery and learning are everything. Time will tell how our recovery works, but the lessons we have already learned about failure in general, and the situation in particular are priceless because we took the time to create and codify those lessons.
While I won’t wish you a failure, I do hope that this will help you when the failures inevitably come.

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