Leader Failures: The Art of Falling on Your Butt

Leader Falling Down

Not all leaders have a perfect path from inception to glory.  There are books, blogs, countless keynotes and movies filled with money-making stories of leaders overcoming failure. 

If a leader learns from mistakes made, then leadership skills can evolve, grow, and flourish.

Waiting My Turn

Like many others at my current company where I have spent the last 20 years, my role as a formal leader has increasingly been reduced. As the economy fails to recover and Baby Boomers can’t afford to retire, the heaviness at the top grows continually larger resulting in crowding in the upper layers.

Talented potential leaders are stuck below the next rung on the ladder and competition at the top breeds a cut throat “survival of the fittest” culture.

If you work for a large corporation, have you noticed this same trend?

In the “balanced world,” these great leaders would be successfully managing big teams and growing their people and the corporate revenue.

But in the real world, those talented leaders, if lucky, are put into individual contributor jobs, trying to make as much positive impact as possible in the shadows of some great and some not so great leaders who are permanently cemented in their positions.

Many leave to pursue better opportunities. If they remain, small mistakes mean big tumbles. I have made my share of skid marks, leader lessons, and recovery still-pending…

Finding Yourself On Your Butt

On Your Butt

After falling on my butt as a leader multiple times, it was extremely ironic when the analogy of falling on my butt became literal.

As a Certified Career Development Instructor, I hadn’t taught a class in over a year. I felt as an instructor, I needed to have a positive career story for my students to be inspired.

Previously, the story of being non-technical in a technical company and how I worked my way up from a temporary administrative assistant to a director of a high performing team was the motivation behind teaching.

Getting others to rise to their potential and love what they do fed my desire to teach and to grow others. My struggle to get my leader ability back on track these last few years didn’t seem like a story worth sharing. When an instructor had to cancel, I hesitantly agreed to cover.

I had taught the class many times so I wasn’t concerned on the delivery; I was concerned with my credibility.

Falling on My Butt

I was lucky that the class was extremely energetic and engaged. 30 minutes into the session, I was walking backwards (never a good idea… and in wedges none the less…) in the front of the room and tripped over a chair, landing flat on my back.

As the students gasped and I heard “are you okay?

I lay on the floor looking up at the ceiling thinking “I just fell on my butt… Wow fitting; how awesome!”

I laid there for a minute pondering my next move….

Option A:

Jump up, tell my students to play hooky the rest of the day and run out of the room?

OR

Option B:

Do the same thing I had been doing for the last few years with my leadership stumbles:  Get up, brush myself off and do my best to deliver the most awesome class ever.

I decided on the latter.

The Power of Focusing on Solutions

I do have to admit that due to my less-than-graceful stunt, the class was focused on my every move. More so for my next potential face plant than the compelling delivery of the content I am sure.

After class I had a student come up to me and say “You handled that [embarrasing situation] with such grace, what a great day!”

My response to her was “Well, what else could I do, run from the room screaming?”

The unscripted fall reminded me of the lessons I have been living as a struggling leader and that I need to keep top of mind:

  • If failure wasn’t an option for leaders, we wouldn’t have many in this world
  • Failure, if used as a vehicle to learn, adapt, improve, can help a person become a better leader
  • When you fall, get up and keep going. Even leaders are human
  • People fear perfect leaders if there is such a thing. Failure, fumbles and stumbles bring leaders a little closer to the heart of their followers.
  • Don’t blame others for your missteps. When mistakes happen, look inside first, always

I am still worn from trying to land solidly on my feet in an ever challenging environment but at least after my class experience, I know that when I literally fall on my butt, I can get back up on my feet and deliver.

What are some of your stories of failure and recovery?

**********

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——————–
Cheryl Dilley
Cheryl Dilley 
is a Program Director at Intel Corporation
She is a transformation leader, coach, and program strategist
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Image Sources: seattleinjuryaccidentlawyer.com

3 Responses

  1. I think the situations you talk about is because we have too large entities. I am happy to elaborate on this at another time. However, the reality is that it is impossible to lead several thousand employees. The mission get diluted or distorted and that means we are no longer aiming the same way and some people are exploring a side mission, which I call office politics. Easier to hide the larger the organization is.
    My solution is to break down organizations in small autonomous entities. Today’s technology allows for small entities to be very flexible and change there energy (contribution) instantly for reaching maximum result ( benefits). Once again, it might need some more details so people can see that it is realistic. The real problem is the inertia in all our large organizations – private and public. The organizations have grown so large that nobody understands where they are going and many of the problems we are fighting with (political and economical) are a result of this ‘free fall’ situation.
    Lennart Thornros

    • Thanks Lennart,
      You are exactly right. The company I worked through went through a huge flattening in 2006 and let go of 100 managers, reducing the hierarchy. It was painful but necessary. Unfortunately with growth and surviving well during the downturn, the company has gotten out of whack and top heavy. It may need another reset to rebalance. Thanks for your great insight!

      Cheryl Dilley

  2. Reblogged this on fuzzbytes.

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