Ownership, Grace & Generosity in Failure

Ownership, Grace & Generosity in Failure

February 8, 2016

Last night in the Superbowl, the South Carolina Panthers were outplayed and trounced by the opposing Denver Broncos.  Knowing the final score pretty much exhausts my knowledge of the sport of football. But I watched the post-game interview with losing quarterback Cam Newton, and like many other viewers, found his petulance and lack of grace unpalatable.  However, there is much more to glean from his behavior than just a comment on Cam Newton’s attitude problem, professional sport, being a good loser or any of the other assessments that will automatically be applied to this celebrity moment of entitled pouting.

For those of us who have leadership roles, either in our businesses, families or elsewhere, there is much to be gleaned from Newton’s reaction and the many ways that  leaders can respond in the face of failure.  First of all, his posture, attire and body language delivered a clear message. He seemed sulky, uncharacteristically sullen and introverted.  None of us knows his psychological state, whether he was truly feeling victimized or self-recriminating.  But frankly, neither one is optimal for a true leader.  Then, there’s what he said: In his interview, Newton was not justifying himself or blaming anyone per se, and that is to his credit.  But neither was he taking responsibility for his role in the failure. He ceded that his team had been outplayed, that they had missed opportunities and failed to rise to the occasion. But in the face of this loss, the only pronoun he used was “we”, never “I”.  He had a great opportunity to be wildly generous to his team and to own the failure as the leader. He could have taken the stance of Harry Truman, famous issuer of the greatest ever leadership quote: “The buck stops here”.


Why does any of this matter to you, your business or your life? Failure is the most frequent occurrence whenever you are trying to accomplish something. It doesn’t really matter whether we are talking about reaching a new business goal, launching a new product, running a marathon, raising a child or nurturing a loving marriage.  If you are striving, working, becoming, creating or aspiring, you will fail. You will fail in big ways and small ways, at reaching goals, hitting milestones, fulfilling expectations and hitting the mark. You will be disappointed. Those who count on you will be disappointed. But how you behave in those moments of failure are ultimately the most significant artifact of your character, your leadership and your humanity. They are also opportunities for you to define yourself in a way that helps to build the path to success in anything you are attempting to accomplish and more beyond that. I don’t mean this as some kind of Polyanna-ish, “whenever a door closes a window opens” kind of bromide. Instead, I mean this in real, material terms.  How you behave in moments of failure colors the relationship of your team to your leadership; it colors how you go out the door for your next training run, and therefore how you run; it colors the next moment, day and year of your relationship with your children or spouse. So it is an opportunity to choose how those next moments will play out.  Failure is a phenomenon in which what you do with it is very much like choosing an investment strategy for the future. And you can choose one that is tantamount to playing the lottery (i.e., full of risk and unlikely to work) or like putting your funds in a long-term, high-performing fund with low fees.

There are some important guiding principles to leverage failure in a way that will yield significant dividends going forward.

  • Don’t be a Blanket of Doom: It’s o.k. to be disappointed, but it’s not o.k. to toxify the atmosphere around you with your disappointment.  You are the grown up!  That applies regardless of the setting, unless it is on your therapist’s couch.  If you are sulky, churlish, emotionally unavailable or bratty in any way, you are spreading a virus that will infect everyone around you. And even though you may not intend it to be “about them”, it will land on those around you like a big, wet blanket and suck all energy and possibility out of them!
  • Figure Out Your Contribution to the Failure, Own It and Share It: Whether or not you actually contributed to the failure in a direct, material way is of no importance. The point is that something failed, and the only person you have any purview over is you.  What could you have done differently. How could you have better empowered, guided, coached or instructed your team?  What alternative judgment could you have made that might have altered the outcome. You! Not them. This is distinct from self-recrimination. Self-recrimination is indulgent. Remember, as a grown up you are not self-indulgent, you are curious, striving and generous — with others and yourself. Once you can truly see something you learned in the failure, definitely share it with those who are involved.  It will not only provide value to all of you, it will give them the freedom to do the same about their own performance, judgment and role. But one caveat, don’t share your own role as some kind of covert trick to get them to see their (bigger) part in it. That kind of move is (again) bratty and (really) transparent.
  • Stay Authentic: Both of the points above are not techniques to be applied in some slick, inauthentic formula. They will only empower you, your team and your future if they are real. How do you do that?  Well, first you have an internal conversation with yourself in which you allow yourself to feel and silently voice all of the disgusting, bratty thoughts you have about the failure; all the accusations, recriminations and blame. This takes place in your head, not out loud or on your face. The trick is to understand that these feelings and thoughts are not important — they are just noise, reflex and part of what makes you a human being. But once you have heard all of that from yourself, put it aside. You are not your feelings or your basest thoughts . You HAVE feelings and base thoughts. It’s different.  You are your own creation, and that is defined by your commitments, aspirations, goals, intentions and principles. So to stay authentic is to stay true to who you are creating yourself to be. True yourself up against that and you will be authentic.

Imagine if Cam Newton had been able to tell the difference between the nasty, infantile feelings he had and who is is committed to being. I am confident he is committed to being a leader for his team, his coaches, his family and for sports fans everywhere. But he thought that the fact of his feeling disappointment, self-recrimination and anger was his true self. It isn’t. And neither is yours. Use your failures to build stronger relationships and better strategies and plans. Failure will never feel good. But it can do good!


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