Decades ago, I was working with 25 people from various walks of life who had been very successful and were interested in a new challenge: leadership development consulting. An opening get-to-know-you request was made: “Think of an important experience, one you are grateful for, that shapes the leader you are today. Please tell that story to someone near you.” After they shared the experiences with one another many told their story to the entire group. The results surprised me.
Of the approximately 20 people who spoke, over three-fourths of the group told stories similar in content and flow:
Since that time over 30 years ago, I’ve made the same request of thousands of leaders and the results have been strikingly alike: a personal sense of failure, outreach to a community and results that redeem the failure. Having heard answers from leaders in different industries and non-profits from countries all over the world, I’ve come to believe that this is a deeply human experience worthy of our appreciation.
What disrupts this Backroad to Brilliance? Why do disappointments not always lead to valuable discovery? Having asked this of many leaders we admire, here are things we’ve learned that prevent brilliant, resilient recovery:
If you don’t admit mistake and disappointment, you can’t benefit from it. Avoid the “never show weakness” leaders with unbroken strings of success and tales of unfailing judgment. They lie to us and themselves.
“This shouldn’t be!”: objecting to what is happening instead of dealing with it. Sure, we’re disappointed. How quickly we shift from complaining to learning is evidence of leadership. Wallowing in regret is an indulgence we cannot afford.
Believing that “me” is smarter than “we.” The myth of individual brilliance suppresses contribution and wastes time, money and talent. It also increases risk and delays achievement.
Losing the plot: forgetting the purpose behind the action. Thoughtless reaction can feel productive though it rarely is. If we take a breath and remember the purpose that holds us together, the disappointment won’t tear us apart. Our purpose-driven debrief paves the way to collective brilliance.
So, what activates the backroad to brilliance? What we’ve learned from those thousands of leaders has led us to these key principles:
Empathy: owning leadership as an art of correction, not perfection. The measure of our honor is not the absence of mistakes, it is the quality of our adjustment.
Presence: appreciating & releasing our own reaction to disappointment. What thoughts, emotions and physical sensations are present? Notice and release. As Rev. Baker says, “The difference between a rut and a grave is how long you stay in it.”
Purpose: recover the important commitment that still matters and let it guide our adjustments.
Community: convene the “we” that is smarter than me. Share the challenge with capable, committed people and make room for them to contribute.
I’m a fan of the Backroad to Brilliance. It gives the wild array of mistakes I’ve made a sensible place in life: a treasure trove of lessons that redeem my blunders.