Leadership Caffeine™-Create Success by Managing Your Response to Failure

A Cup of Leadership CaffeineNo one wants to fail. It’s not something that we typically seek out as part of our personal and organizational character building experience.  However, from a distance, we tend to mythologize failure, especially in the context of achieving future success.

Run a web search on some phrases built around failure, and you’ll come up with quite a few reflecting a very true statement, “Failure is a teacher.”  Our histories and leadership legends all benefit from the context of understanding the final outcome of the story, but the telling of the story doesn’t adequately capture the powerful emotional forces that occur at the moment of failure.

Certainly, the stories are right and the lessons instructional. They inspire us to persevere, but the failure-leading to-success legends don’t guide us how to respond and cope in the moment.

In my own experience (personal and as a leader supporting others), the moment of failure is filled with a swirl of emotions ranging from anger to frustration to a deep depression-like funk.  In particular, for individuals that have experienced only success in life and career, and yes there are those that enjoy mostly charmed existences due to their skills and perhaps some good fortune, the moment of failure feels much like being transported to an alien landscape where suddenly everything is not as it should be.

As a leader seeking to help team members through a dark point in time, or perhaps dealing personally with your own failure disorientation, here are a number of suggestions to help light the way.

Five Ideas to Help You and Your Team Members Cope with a Setback:

1.  Speed is of the essence. The faster you can help everyone move from “what just happened?” to “what next?” the faster you pass through the cold, alien landscape of failure. Linger too long on an extended self-pity party and you might as well set up camp and become a permanent resident. Your goal must be to move through this phase or process in a hurry.

2.  Don’t get caught up in blaming the world. Does it really help to blame everything and everyone else for the failure?  Once again, attempt to move quickly to “what next?” or you risk an extended stay in the land where “yelling into and shaking your fist at the wind” is a national pastime.  It might feel good for a moment, but eventually, it’s just dumb.

3.  Beat yourself with a wet noodle and move on! If the failure is personal, resist the urge to blame your lack of ability.  The destructive “I’m not smart enough/good enough” mentality likes to attach itself to your frontal lobe and take root, ensuring a growing problem with self-doubt.  Instead, admit that you made mistakes, that you failed to exert enough effort to properly see or deal with the issue and once again, jump on the “OK, I won’t make those mistakes again…what next?” train.

4. Failures are often not performance problems.  Don’t confuse the two Leader, please don’t make failure a punishable offense.  Individual or team failures are different than performance problems and you should treat them as such.  Too many leaders allow untreated performance issues to infect team environments, and then they attack the team, not the root cause of the underperformer.  Don’t misdiagnose and mistreat here or the failure disease will spread.

5.  Your time and asking the right questions will help your team members start moving forward. For individual failures, it is essential for you to create some one-on-one time and allow the failure/grieving process to unfold.  Your role here is to listen and ask questions such as:

  • What went wrong?
  • What did you learn?
  • How can you prevent this from recurring?
  • What are your ideas for moving forward?
  • How can I help?

Remember to set a follow-up discussion to ensure that the individual is back on track and focus on the challenges looking forward instead of the issues that are increasingly distant in the rear-view mirror.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Dealing with adversity is one of the core challenges of the leader.  Developing a coping strategy for yourself and your team is essential for success.  The legends and myths of failure are right…they do provide critical learning opportunities and teachable moments.  Nonetheless, the fact that you or your team members are benefitting from one of these “priceless” moments offers little help or comfort at the moment of failure.  Understanding how to leverage the emotions and the energy of the situations will help you create your own legends and examples.  It will also reduce the unhealthy fear of failure that stifles so much creativity.

You don’t have to embrace or smile at failure.  Instead, kick it in the teeth and use the emotional energy to propel you and your team forward.

By | 2016-10-22T17:11:56+00:00 January 25th, 2010|Career, Leadership, Leadership Caffeine|17 Comments

About the Author:

Art Petty is a coach, speaker and workshop presenter focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. When he is not speaking, Art serves senior executives, business owners and high potential professionals as a coach and strategy advisor. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.


  1. Dave Baldwin January 25, 2010 at 8:21 am - Reply

    Great Monday morning Leadership Caffeine Art!
    Thank you for the questions to ask the team after a set-back. I need to hang on to those.
    I belonged to an organization that wouldn’t let go of a failure. They kept replaying it over and over and over again. Thirteen years later, when I left the organization they were still talking about it as if it were yesterday. It had come to define them.
    Although the Vikings lost last night, I like what Favre said to Peterson after a failed play, “That play is over.” Brett has that move on attitude.
    Thanks for a good shot of caffeine this morning.

    • Art Petty January 25, 2010 at 8:26 am - Reply

      Thanks, Dave! It is easy to hang on to failure personally and organizationally, and it serves absolutely no good purpose. Brett did serve as a great example to Peterson. I only hope that Brett can move on from his last pass as well. Thanks as always for reading and sharing your wisdom, Dave! -Art

  2. Dan McDowell January 25, 2010 at 1:55 pm - Reply

    Once again the subject and your guidance is outstanding.

    My first CO in the military, Lt. Col. Robert T. Weaver was a true officer and gentleman. He was from the south though I do not recall from where. I think it was Kentucky but…it doesn’t really matter. He always said it is a natural part of the human condition ( in those who care about what they are doing) to “beat yourself up (when a failure occurs). As he instructed us he said allow yourself a maximum of 24 hours to dwell on the failure and 24 is a luxury period. He urged us to use 4 hours to grieve, 4 hours to break down the problem and 4 hours to rebuild and move on. Then use the next 12 to get a good nights sleep , a good meal and a hot shower. Take that renewed energy and press on with new vigor and possibly a new or revised direction.

    It works

    Thanks for your outstanding articles. thought provoking and always useful.

    • Art Petty January 25, 2010 at 1:57 pm - Reply

      Dan, I absolutely love your Lt.’s guidance! Priceless, actionable and powerful advice! Thank you so much for sharing. Best regards, -Art

  3. Robert Comer January 25, 2010 at 4:11 pm - Reply

    Great advice. I think the hardest aspect of dealing with failure are the emotions that follow it. Recently I saw a three part series on PBS called “This Emotional Life.” In the first part of the series they gave great examples of how three individuals coped with major life changing events. One was a POW,One was paralyzed after an accident and one lost a career on Wall street. In all of these cases the individual saw the setback as an opportunity for self development and making their life better. All of these individuals appeared to be happier then before the setback and living a more prosperous life.

    • Art Petty January 25, 2010 at 4:19 pm - Reply

      Bob, I agree. The emotions that follow are the ones that are so difficult to distance ourselves from in this process. Your examples are excellent and a nice tag along to Dan’s advice above. Thanks for reading and commenting! -Art

  4. Javier Melendez January 25, 2010 at 4:56 pm - Reply

    Hello Mr. Art Petty, I really loved your article so much about creating succes by managing your response to failure. I am an MBA student at the University of Nv. Reno and came from Mexico to the States 5 years ago. I began my professional career working at UPS as a loader and after a month or so I was promoted to a supervisory position, which I do appreciate UPS for such great opportunity in my life. I am still struggling with the language barrier, however I feel myself so confident to perform the task a manager is requiered for. After reading this amazing article, I found myself so related to your thoughts as much as I realize how important it is to accept my mistakes in my work place because from them I learn a whole lot and move on, unlike so many people I work with (most americans) who will never ever accept them and always blame them to anybody else’s fault around. I am astonished of how true you describe your thoughts in this article, and I promess I will watch your future articles closely.

    Thank you so much for sharing your words to us the MBA students who are tomorrows future.

    Best Regards,

    Javier Melendez
    Grad. Student.

    • Art Petty January 25, 2010 at 7:12 pm - Reply

      Javier, thank you for thoughtful comment and kind words! I am honored that you are a reader and I look forward to sharing many thoughts and ideas. And yes, most definitely, you and your classmates are our future! Best Regards, Art

  5. Joe Bradshaw January 25, 2010 at 5:12 pm - Reply


    I think the reason failure sticks around so long in people’s minds is that they don’t want to take accountability for their own or their teams own part in the failure and instead a bunch of finger pointing ensues. Do you think if you could teach a group in a workplace to collectively assess failures, not assign blame, and skip straight ahead to solving the issues instead of arguing over who’s fault the failure was? I think if you could get everyone on board with that kind of mantra and if you hire smart people who are willing to learn and work then your length of recovery after a failure will be shortened drastically.

    • Art Petty January 25, 2010 at 7:13 pm - Reply

      Joe, I absolutely think that the culture you describe is achievable. I speak, write and consult on high performance teams and what you describe is most definitely a characteristic of those rare but powerful teams. Thanks so much for reading and commenting! -Art

  6. Jason Martin January 26, 2010 at 1:06 am - Reply

    Thank you, Art for a better follow-up “how-to” list for response to failure than I’ve seen. I recently read Argyris’ “Teaching Smart People How To Learn” for the first time and this post couldn’t have been a better follow up to that article. You answered some of my questions that arose upon the conclusion of that article. You nicely picked up right where Argyris left off and I would like to thank you for your insight and hard work.
    Jason Martin
    University of Nevada MBA Student

  7. James Dodson January 26, 2010 at 6:07 pm - Reply

    Hello Art,
    Interesting article and good straight forward advice on how to move forward when encountering failure.

    As you mentioned failure can and is a good thing. Especially monumental failure; i.e., closing of business / business bankruptcy with civil lawsuits. As painful and messy as these moments are; they can lead to some very profound core value questioning and enlightenment.

    In addition, people often have very differently emotional to failure- anger, sadness, withdrawn, ignoring, manic joyfulness, blaming and total devastation. In a team when this emotional cocktail is mixed up because of a monumental failure event, not all individuals seem to emerge from the fog ready to move forward at the same time. Or you may have relapse even after a closure question / lessons learned session.

    It seems like there has to be this phase of individual failure acceptance leading to meaning by the individual. The time the individual takes to reach this point is highly subjective. Then people begin to move forward efficiently after coming to terms.
    Do you believe that a leader (CEO / Founder) can only move people forward by being intuitive or are there some extremely soft pressure tactics to move people through the above phase without making them feel angry or manipulated?

    I understand the critical need of moving people through a monumental failure because when they shut down it often leads to a failure multiplier which is disastrous. Speed is essential.

    Kind Regards,
    James Dodson (UNR MBA Student)

  8. Andrew Goodwater January 26, 2010 at 8:31 pm - Reply

    This article is great for anyone. The beginning starts off stating that no one wants to fail and how failure is a teacher. The fact of the matter is that everyone fails. Some of the hardest times in my life have been when I have failed after trying extremely hard at something. I have worked on fixing machines at work for over a month. Morning noon and night trying different possibilities as well as talking to technical support over the phone trying to solve the problem. The roller coaster of feelings is sometimes overwhelming. Thinking that I had fixed the problem but failing yet again. After the anger and frustration you have to regroup. In the article it says to move on as quickly as possible and I couldn’t agree more. After the initial disappointment and the wide range of feelings you have to move on and continue to work at the issue at hand. Some of my greatest moments have been the result of initially failing. My father always says life is like a prize fight. Everyone gets knocked down at one point or another, it’s how you react when you get up that makes you a man.

  9. Three Star Leadership Blog January 27, 2010 at 5:05 pm - Reply

    1/27/10: A Midweek Look at the Independent Business Blogs…

    Every week I select five excellent posts from this week’s independent business blogs. This week, I’m pointing you to posts on dramatically improving leadership, growing into leadership, learning from failures, connecting the dots (or not), and flawed…

  10. Wally Bock January 27, 2010 at 7:11 pm - Reply

    Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.


    Wally Bock

    • Art Petty January 27, 2010 at 7:15 pm - Reply

      Wally, thanks so much for the honor! -Art

  11. SmartBrief Insights December 30, 2010 at 10:13 am - Reply

    How to turn failure into success…

    Failure is no fun — but it can be a powerful learning opportunity, writes Art Petty. If you can diagnose and remedy your failures rapidly and without spiraling into despair or destructive blame games, then the occasional glitch can serve as a springbo…

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