Leading Through Reversals (a.k.a. Getting Over Failure)
Reversals are inevitable in business and in life, however, as engineers we aren’t educated and trained to accept them as a circumstance of life. In fact, we’re educated and trained to mitigate them through analysis, study, and safety factors. Who can argue? I don’t want a structural engineer learning through failure in their bridge designs or an aerospace engineer learning through failure of their wing structures on a passenger jet. Yet the act of failure is often what yields greater understanding and wisdom than getting it right.
Leading through reversals is something I’ve learned to accept only through years of experience in leadership positions and through personal experience. But my acceptance of failure as a component of success wasn’t always so. The combination of my risk-adverse engineering background coupled with a long military career all but eliminated my acceptance of failure as an – on anything. This made it difficult to accept less-than-optimum results from subordinates and made it impossible to accept failure on any anything I was involved with. When the inevitable failure occurred, I was insufferable. I was defeated. I was angry…especially with my self.
Getting Over Failure
While failure is not the desired end state we seek, it will happen. A bad decision will be made, a change order won’t be executed in time, a design flaw will slip past review, a program manager’s first try at team leadership will result in sub-optimal results, an inappropriate quip will be made at the wrong time…stuff will happen. What makes a good leader is getting over the failure and moving onward. This is the key lesson I learned through several opportunities at leading large organizations. Other lessons I gleaned over my career:
Failing is a step on the ladder to success. This was perhaps the hardest lesson for me internalize, but I now understand this is an essential truth of getting over failure. It’s not a cliché; it’s fact. If you’re focused on garnering success in a new undertaking you will certainly fail at some point. Knowing that the failure is merely a step in your journey towards success erases the negative context of the failure. “Failing to get ahead”…seems a better way to think about it.
Trouble doesn’t last forever. Even in the darkest of situations, eventually there will be light. A leader knows that the bad stuff will be replaced by the good stuff. Therefore, they work to keep their, and their subordinates, hopes up.
Know what you stand for before a crisis hits. Trying to figure-out your inner mojo in the midst of responding to a crisis wastes energy, broadcasts to everyone that you don’t know what you’re doing, and may well make the situation worse. Do your soul-searching early in your leadership endeavor and know yourself.
Be honest and stand for integrity. No matter how bad it gets, as a leader you cannot leverage your honesty and integrity. When everything is falling down, when failure is at your doorstep, your honesty and integrity will be your suit of armor that will protect you through the fray. When you’re honest and stay true to yourself, others may fault you for the approach you took that led to the failure, but they won’t fault you for your word.
“Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure.” George Edward Woodberry
Chris Knutson, P.E., PMP is a leadership and strategy coach, practicing engineer and program manager. He is co-founder of The Engineering Career Coach, a company providing engineers and engineering companies core skills, leadership, and lifestyle design services enabling them to execute their vision. Chris is a retired U.S. Air Force civil engineer officer with over two decades of active duty service leading engineering organizations and multi-million dollar programs around the globe. Learn more about his work and access more resources at The Engineering Career Coach.