Few phrases are as damaging to a CEO’s reputation as “failure in leadership.” Failing publicly — whether it is tied to a negative business culture, a public relations mess, a scandal or a product/financial disaster — can severely derail a successful career.
Some business leaders may not be able to bounce back from such tumbles. Here’s one reason why, from a story for Harvard Business Review written by Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld and Andrew J. Ward: “Leaders who cannot recover have a tendency to blame themselves and are often tempted to dwell on the past rather than look to the future. They secretly hold themselves responsible for their career setback, whether they were or not, and get caught in a psychological web of their own making, unable to move beyond the position they no longer hold.”
There are ways to tackle these challenges. Here’s a look at recommendations for getting back up after a significant failure.
Fight or flight
When CEOs leave — or are forced to leave — their posts after a leadership failure, they may have the urge to fight the decision or the backlash, through legal action or the court of public opinion. For others, that may be the least desirable approach possible. In Sonnenfeld and Ward’s piece, they detail examples of some who came to a more peaceful resolution, like Jamie Dimon, former president of Citigroup. And they list CEOs who took different paths, those who “were considered brilliant leaders by many,” but “never fought back, and they disappeared from the corner office.”
“The first decision you will face in responding to a career disaster is the question of whether to confront the situation that brought you down — with an exhausting, expensive, and perhaps embarrassing battle — or to try to put it behind you as quickly as possible, in the hope that no one will notice or remember for long,” they explain. “In some cases, it’s best to avoid direct and immediate confrontation.”
It can all come down to reputation, the authors write: “The key determinant in the fight-or-flight question is the damage (or potential damage) incurred to the leader’s reputation — the most important resource of all leaders. While departed CEOs and other leaders may have enough other resources and experience to rebound, it is their reputation that will make the difference between successful career recovery and failure.”
In the wake of a business catastrophe, it’s difficult for many to keep a positive outlook. The fallout may be inevitable, but how long it lasts can be up to the individual. In a story for Business News Daily, Karina Fabian explores the value of failure, with commentary by Jodi Goldstein, managing director of the Harvard Innovation Labs.
“Failure is a learning process,” Fabian writes, “but people often don’t think about it that way, especially if they’ve been successful in life. However, failure can be just as valuable as success. ‘Instead of decreasing your confidence and your feeling of your abilities, it should boost those. Those experiences make you a better entrepreneur,’ said Goldstein.”
The old saying “fall down seven times, get up eight” can apply to CEOs finding their way after failure. Confidence and flexibility have a lot to do with this, according to Faisal Hoque in a Business Insider story that details the resilience of entrepreneur Milton Hershey. Despite many challenges and bumps in the road, Hershey persevered and built the renowned Pennsylvania candy company.
“Even though you are able to acknowledge that you are not a failure, it doesn’t make failure any less painful,” Hoque writes. “Resilient people develop a mental capacity that allows them to adapt with ease during adversity, bending like the green reed instead of breaking like the mighty oak. They accept, adapt, and move on. … When we have the confidence and the experience of bouncing back from failure, taking on future challenges does not seem so daunting. It is about deciding to put oneself on the obstacle course in the hope of success.”
Lean on others
Support is of course a big necessity for anyone looking to move on from a career stumble. This normally starts with the person’s inner circle of family, friends and trusted peers. That circle can be expanded, however. As Sonnenfeld and Ward write, other acquaintances can provide a bigger boost:
“In an acclaimed study, Stanford University’s Mark Granovetter discovered that of those individuals who landed jobs through personal contacts, only 16.7 percent found them through people they saw at least twice a week; 55.6 percent found positions through acquaintances seen at least once a year. But 27.8 percent of job candidates found work through distant acquaintances, whom they saw less than once a year — old college friends, former workmates, or people known through professional associations. In other words, more job contacts will come to you through people you see less than once a year than from people you see twice or more a week. That’s because close friends share the same networks as you do, whereas acquaintances are more likely to introduce you to new people and contacts.”
Having family, friends and acquaintances for support after a business failure will be a significant help. Another way of learning and growing during this time is for the business leader to seek specific feedback on what happened, why it happened and how he or she could have handled it better. In a story for Inc.com, Kat Boogaard writes that this can provide valuable information.
“When faced with failure, most of us have the immediate inclination to just run the other way — dealing with it head-on can feel a little too mortifying,” she notes. “But, sucking up your pride and asking for some feedback is crucial for turning those circumstances around and using them to better yourself. So, when a situation warrants it, grab the bull by the horns and find out what you could’ve done better. No, it’s not always easy. But, it can make all the difference.”
The range of emotions for anyone who has lost a job is significant. Feelings of doubt and despair may be inevitable, and moving past that is easier said than done. At some point, however, those negative feelings can get in the way of progress. As Jim Rohn writes for Success.com, “Remind yourself that you’re bound to get better.”
“Don’t beat yourself up,” he says. “It’s the next opportunity that matters, not the previous one. The previous one matters only in that you must learn from your mistakes. … You need to encourage yourself. You need to pump yourself up. Why? Because you can’t wait and hope that someone else will come along and cheer you up, make you feel better, tell you that you’ll do better next time. You have to rely on yourself. You have to have faith in yourself and your ability to figure out what works and what doesn’t. You have to have the inner belief that everything you’re doing you’re doing for a positive outcome in the future. You have to encourage yourself with future successes.”
Skip the excuses
The responsibility of a CEO can be immense. That’s a primary reason why leadership failures can create such a business-rattling effect. Those who engage in deflection — having an excuse for every misstep — are unlikely to truly learn from the experience, as Boogaard explains.
“It’s all too easy to reply to suggestions for improvement with things like, ‘Well, I did that because …’ or, ‘I responded that way because …’ But, it’s important that you resist the urge to make excuses and instead accept responsibility. … If you aren’t willing to recognize the role you played in your own failure, you’ll have a hard time learning from it.”