Leaders Recover from Failure

I have been watching a lot of sports lately. There was the Women’s Soccer World Cup and now the Tour de France. Sport gives spectators the opportunity to witness the agony of defeat and to study the many ways people choose to respond to failure.

Laura Bassett reacting to own goal in England vs Japan
Laura Bassett was “heartbroken” by inadvertently scoring a point for Japan. Photo and quote source: Daily Express

Maybe you think of failure as a mistake like Laura Bassett’s own goal. Bassett had been playing terrific football in the World Cup when she did something that unfortunately could define her career. Her own-goal in stoppage time ceded the win to Japan. “I couldn’t breathe, my heart was out my chest and I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me,” she said afterward.

I use a broader fail definition. Anytime we are unable to reach our goal then it is a kind of failure. Our saboteurs can have a field day in our head (or sometimes they are living critics sniping at us in person or in the press).  The most damaging is our own self critic, even when the “short of goal” fits into the category of “stuff happens.”

For example, Tony Martin missed the yellow jersey (first place for general classification in Tour de France) in the first stage time trial by just 5 seconds. He closed the gap to one second and continued to pursue the yellow in the next 2 stages. Finally he saw his opportunity and fulfilled one of his dreams by breaking away in the last 3 km and won the stage and the yellow jersey. He took the honor of wearing yellow seriously, so when he crashed within 1 km of an uphill finish on Stage 6 he struggled to get on his bike and finish the race.

Failure may be a gift. First, what we think we want may not be what is best for us. The phrase “be careful what you wish for” often sums this up. Often a failure gives us the space to reconsider what we really want and to reevaluate our goals. Second, we learn so much more from our failures than from our successes. Generally when we succeed we spend little time examining what went well, or what went wrong. Nothing like failure to help us be more introspective.

The critical thing about failure is how you choose to look at the event and what you choose to do next. The key is to consciously choose. Alas, it is tempting and easy to default to a perspective of victimhood or to beat ourselves up because we fell short of our goal or made mistakes. We have a choice of perspective.

Tony Martin receives support from Etixx-Quick-Step teammates.
Tony Martin receives support from Etixx-Quick-Step teammates.

What did Tony Martin do after his crash? He let his team help him across the line. He had an open fracture of collarbone (piercing the skin) yet he struggled through the duties of drug testing, awards ceremonies and interviews, all the time looking like he was going to vomit from the pain. He exhausted every possibility to return to the race the next day and then when he knew he had to go to Germany for surgery that night, he stopped to say farewell to his teammates and thank them for their support. His choices after his biggest disappointment of his career has solidified his reputation as a classy guy and a leader.

I do not know how Laura Bassett is handling her public failure after all the World Cup hoopla. I believe she started for England against Germany and won the bronze medal. Not everyone is able to recover in the moment as Tony Martin did. Nor should we expect them to, so when I say it is important to choose what you do next, I actually mean next and next and next. Then one day you move to a place where you no longer play it over and over in your head and you are no longer identified with the failure.

I have had some big failures and disappointments in my life. My most recent is selling everything I own, quitting my job and putting all of my resources toward moving to New Zealand. I was only able to stay 5.5 months and had to move back to Sacramento. I was devastated and to some degree I am still trying to figure out why and what next. Externally I am better off financially and I am closer to my family, so most people probably think I have recovered. Emotionally I am still processing the failure and I feel more stuck than I look. I am still in the dance trying to figure it out.

Perspective Matters!

Elephant & Piggie books by Mo Willems
Elephant & Piggie books by Mo Willems

One of my strengths as a leader is my lack of certainty. (You may recall it also one of my weaknesses.) For many years I reveled in my ability to make snap judgments and decisions. I believed that I was right 98 percent of the time. It led to much unhappiness. It also achieved results.

One of the CTI coaching workshops is called Perspective and it changed my life and leadership. The basic premise is you start with a statement that you feel fairly certain about, but one that is unsatisfactory. For example, “I am not an athlete and I am going to suffer on RAGBRAI (upcoming 7 day ride).” Then you move physically (as simple as standing up and turning around) and make an opposite statement (even if you do not believe it). For example, “I am an athlete and I am going to kick RAGBRAI’s butt.”  Then you take on other perspectives and make other statements, each time moving physically. Ultimately you will land on a perspective that resonates and is sometimes far from where you started.

This process enables me to find a perspective that serves my goals and is actually closer to the Truth. It also helps me hold my judgments more lightly and as a result I suffer less.

Today I found a children’s book by Mo Willems from the Elephant & Piggie series, Are You Ready to Play Outside?  Gerald the elephant asks Piggie if he is ready to play outside. Piggie can hardly wait to run and jump and play outside. Then it starts to rain and Piggie’s perspective is that it is the end of the world. He cannot play outside. Then he sees two worms playing in the rain and he gains a new perspective. Just as he begins to relish playing in the rain, the rain stops. Now Piggie is again upset. Then Gerald provides rain via his trunk and Piggie is happy again. It is a perfect illustration of how easily we can get stuck and unstuck in a perspective.

It sounds so obvious, yet in my experience it is hard to practice. With the work on the Delta projects, it is easy to adopt one way of looking at issues and to stop asking good questions and get stuck in a perspective even when it no longer serves my stake or most accurately reflects the Truth.

Try it and share your discoveries with me.

Celebrating Marriage Equality: Woop! Woop!

Tracy and Marge on Huffington Post!
Tracy and Marge on Huffington Post!

The U.S. Supreme Court 5-4 decision to recognize the right of everyone to marry who they love regardless of their gender was more personal than it might have been a few years ago. Since my involvement with CTI and the leadership program I have many more gay or lesbian people in my tribe. Marj Plumb (on right in photo above) was my executive coach for several years. I knew she was in a committed relationship with her love Tracy, but I was not so close to her that I knew they were married. But then when I moved to New Zealand we became facebook friends and I followed her posts as she and Tracy moved to Omaha, Nebraska for Tracy’s job. Suddenly their marriage was not legally recognized. They were named parties on the lawsuit against the State of Nebraska and ultimately their fate was in the hands of SCOTUS. I was thrilled to see the Huffington Post celebrate them as they have been leaders on this issue.

My own thinking on marriage rights had already evolved from conversations with my Panther tribe mates in CTI Co-Active Leadership program. It was such an intense experience and we grew to love and respect one another in a very deep way. One retreat we spent two evenings telling one another about a profound experience that has shaped us. Many of my tribe members shared the pain and rejection they experienced when they came out. This was the first time I knew someone well enough that I learned these intimate details.

Panther Dale was politicized by the battle over California’s Proposition 8 at the end of 2008.  He helped me understand that there was not a compromise that worked and why. I struggled with the arguments that I had heard at church and from conservative friends. Dale’s leadership–which included getting all of the men in the program to wear gay pride underwear!–impacted my thinking and by the end of 2010 I was ready to vote for marriage equality.

Another Panther Jen and her partner Leslie also challenged my beliefs around my faith. They are committed to each other and committed to Christ. This challenged all of the teaching I had ever heard in the evangelical church. I began asking new questions and seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

Ultimately these perspectives and their leadership helped me make a shift to a new way of thinking. Of course this means that I am no longer comfortable in old places. I am not sad about this because my heart is bigger and I have a new perspective and there is no going back to the old way of thinking.

It was with a full heart that I celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision. Woop! Woop!