Leadership, Failure and Resilience
by Jeffrey D. Yergler


It is a fact that talented and gifted leaders make errors in judgment. If the mistakes are of sufficient magnitude, they frequently cause leaders to forfeit their visible and powerful positions. Whether the decision led to an ethical/moral compromise or an operational/business error that resulted in millions of dollars of lost revenue, getting fired or being forced to “retire” is a devastating, debilitating and catastrophic loss. Regardless of how the individuals to blame and their organizations seek to “dress-up” the parting, the reality is that this type of failure, for the man or woman leaving in disgrace and shame, is an onerous burden and very, very costly, not only to the wallet but especially to one’s emotional stability, family structure and relational network.

To further compound this situation, because we live in an overly reactive and punitive social and business culture, these talented and capable leaders are quickly labeled organizational pariahs and corporate untouchables. Feeling humbled and humiliated, with few guides or mentors to stand with them, they may come close to the brink of despair. In some cases, absolute banishment from the organizational world fits the failure. However, in many others, brilliant men and woman, who are no different than anyone else in their occasional exhibition of flawed humanity…and who continue to have deep leadership skills to offer, are mercilessly cast aside as if they suddenly had become useless pieces of human debris.

Some scratch-and-claw their way back, driven by the need to vindicate themselves. Some rise from the ashes of disgrace but never quite make it back to their former levels of professional stature. Some never make it back at all (see Fighting back: How great leaders rebound after career disasters, Harvard Business School Press). The wounds of failure run deep and are extremely difficult to recover from. What makes the difference? What allows some leaders to navigate their way through the pain, suffering and humiliation while others remain paralyzed? The difference is what I call deep resilience.

When I query my undergraduate students as to the meaning of the word resilience, the definition I hear most often is having the capacity to “bounce back.” The image is that of a thrown rubber ball that quickly descends, encounters resistance, and just as quickly begins an upward assent back to its original point of departure. When we describe people as resilient, we often mean they have some innate capacity to rebound quickly and smartly from adversity - to rapidly return to their previous level of functioning, taking whatever caused the original disruption in perfect stride. The problem with this culturally-conditioned understanding of resilience is that it is inaccurate, shallow, unreasonable and the perfect set-up for even more failure, frustration and emotional damage down the road.

Recovering from a significant leadership failure is, in the final analysis, a matter of summoning resilience that lies deep within the human heart and soul. It has little to do with “bouncing back quickly.” Deep resilience creates transformation (a new intellectual understanding and emotional realignment) within the person, which then opens the door for a slow and steady recovery ahead. This is a painstaking, deliberate journey that invites the leader to enter into what seems to be a period of interminable struggle and darkness. When leaders see resilience as merely the ability to “suck it up” and get on with the business of fighting one’s way back into the organizational ring, they’ve missed the point entirely, not to mention an opportune transformational moment.

Resilience, in the face of catastrophic professional failure and loss (as opposed to tolerating the minor indignities of everyday life), is an invitation to change one’s interior infrastructure…that which needs to be changed deep within oneself if a slow and steady assent is to take place. It is an opportunity to go “into and through” the meaning of our failure and what that failure can teach us about ourselves and the ways we have misconstrued our view of reality, power, self-worth and personal contribution. This is a difficult and painful gauntlet to traverse, which is why many a compromised leader often fights tooth-and-nail to preserve whatever personal dignity and pride are left even though the reason behind the failure is patently obvious to all.

On the other hand, for those leaders who choose to embark upon the journey of resilience, who choose congruence over incongruence, integrity and courage over false bravado and inauthenticity, the pathway is well-delineated, though definitely daunting. When leaders fail…when talented, experienced and educated leaders fall flat on their face…the choice is clear cut: stay immersed in and overcome by shame, bitterness, guilt and anger or acknowledge the devastation and begin the slow process of moving ahead. Deep resilience is about the latter decision.

For those who determine that confronting the hidden undercurrents of their failure is the right decision, five sequential steps can serve as a guide.

Accepting responsibility for our failure: Perhaps the hardest step is the first. In the core of our being we know there is no one to blame for the failure except ourselves. Regardless of the circumstances that led up to the debacle, we made the decision, we cut the corners, we played the game of smoke and mirrors, we tried to gain financially, we tried to amass power and we were discovered. Be it a good friend or a prominent business leader who has stumbled, it is incredibly inspiring to witness someone who accepts full responsibility…finally…for his actions. It may take time to get to this place, but when we do, it is a key marker that deep resilience is emerging.

Understanding the factors that led us to this place of failure: Deep resilience requires an understanding of how we created or constructed a view of reality that laid the ground work for our self-deception and compromise. As we look back with the intent of unmasking our perceptions, we can often detect where those “two degrees of separation” began to appear in our lives. Something, at some point, got sideways and never quite righted itself. Over time we accommodate ourselves to the growing incongruence of our personal and professional lives. When this misalignment becomes unconsciously accepted as the norm, increasingly misaligned behaviors follow. Knowing why we did what we did allows us to move ahead without any pretense or continuing self-deception.

Translating the failure into a source of learning and potential transformation: Recent research has shown that one of the markers of resilience is the ability to recast the story of tragedy and loss into a story of personal power and positive momentum (Tebes et al., 2004). Using the loss as a catalyst for heightened learning and insight about oneself and how to live rightly is critical to recovery and renewal. We can either let our experience continually beat us down, or we can use the pain and suffering to galvanize personal re-formation.

Rebuilding a career with new information: The further we travel on the journey of deep resilience…the more that is revealed about ourselves, the more we realize we can never return to the former status quo. In fact, going back seems not only untenable, but emphatically unappealing. No amount of money, power or prestige is worth a return to our “house of cards.” Movement, including rebuilding our careers and often our lives, is about traveling forward into the unknown and leaving the past behind. New knowledge, new freedom, as well as the all too real scars we’ve incurred, demand professional change, particularly in the form of a more balanced and congruent life.

Contributing to institutions and people from a place of new insight and knowledge: When formerly scorned and vilified leaders (who remain just as talented, articulate and gifted as ever) have immersed themselves deeply into inner resilience and slowly emerge, they often find themselves in a new context of organizational leadership. The personal insights gained and the transformation which has unfolded can demand a radically new organizational structure. These leaders, tempered and galvanized not into hardness and toughness but into humility and self-awareness, are compelled to lead and influence…to speak into the lives of others…from a different vantage point. They see with new eyes, feel deeply and are often “qualified” to address the perils of the professional-corporate world.

These are the leaders who re-emerge from massive professional loss not by continuing to “play the game of deception,” not by manipulating stories of religious conversion or childhood abuse to play the crowd and media, but by confronting their flaws, and then engaging in the often brutal work of inner transformation. Because failed leaders who commit to the experience of deep resilience discover they are capable of so much more than what they had previously delivered, the journey of change through darkness, brokenness, and often loneliness is worth it. These leaders see their failure as the door to a second chance to “do it right.”

The allure of professional success is powerful, seductive and often dangerous. There are legions of casualties that prove the point. Few are wise enough to pause and count the cost or consider the dangers of pursuing a meteoric rise. Perhaps we would all do well to consider Henry Thoreau’s wise words, “Let us remember not to strive upwards too long but sometimes drop plumb down the other way, and wallow in the meanness: From the deepest pit we may see the stars, if not the sun.”


The Author

Jeff Yergler

Dr. Jeffrey D. Yergler is Professor of Organizational Leadership and Resource Management at Olympic College in Bremerton, WA. He is also Principal for Integer Leadership Consulting (www.integerleadership.com). Jeff can be reached at jdy@integerleadership.com or by phone at: 253-230-1024.

Many more articles in Executive Performance in The CEO Refresher Archives

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Yergler. All rights reserved.

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