Every leader—no matter how successful they are or how long they’ve been in the game—has faced setbacks.
Some of those setbacks may have been minor blips—missing a deadline or facing a short sales slump. Others have probably been significant, setbacks that rocked the very foundations of their business—a failed product launch or the loss of a major client.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Big or small, setbacks sting.
But the setback itself isn’t what will determine the trajectory of your leadership journey. Your response is what will have the real impact.
Maybe a project you were overseeing ran into timeline delays, which resulted in some of your clients canceling their orders. In the short-term, you may feel the crush of embarrassment and frustration. But then what? Did you come down on your team? Did you deflect all the responsibility and blame your vendors? Or did you dig in and try to understand what happened, without assigning blame, and look for solutions that can help you avoid this kind of setback in the future?
The reality is, once it’s happened, that setback is what it is. But what your board, your clients, your team, and even future employers will remember is what you did next.
Dr. Carol Dweck, the architect of the concept of a growth mindset, argues that the core principle of a growth mindset is a belief that our abilities and intelligence can be developed through dedication and hard work. We can experiment, challenge ourselves, learn, grow, and improve.
When we lead with a growth mindset, failures are never the end of the end of the story; they’re a new opportunity—a chance to learn, adapt, and grow.
I know that the sting of failure can be debilitating. As leaders, our instincts might push us to hide, to downplay the setback, or to shift the blame. But this fixed-mindset approach holds us, and our teams, back. By shying away from setbacks, we miss out on invaluable learning experiences, and we hinder our own growth.
Think back to a time when everything seemed to go wrong, despite your best efforts—that sick feeling in your stomach. The weight of all the eyes on you, waiting for direction. The echoing voice in your head asking, “How did this happen?”
It’s uncomfortable, right? But what if we shifted that perspective? What if, instead of seeing setbacks as confirmation of inadequacy, we saw them as feedback instead? What if we looked at setbacks as an opportunity to learn, pivot, and improve?
Leaders who cultivate a growth mindset transform setbacks into springboards for success.
Let’s dive into three main lessons for how to shift from stewing on the setback to growing forward:
1. Embrace the Lesson, Not the Failure
It’s easy to get stuck on what went wrong, to keep replaying the details over and over in your head.
But every setback carries a lesson. Instead of ruminating on what went wrong, focus on what you can learn. That simple shift in perspective can turn a negative experience into a constructive one.
Try this: The next time you encounter a setback, take a moment to reflect. Write down three things you learned from the experience and how you can apply these lessons moving forward.
2. Encourage a Culture of Feedback
No matter how engaged or hands-on you are as a leader, you can’t always see everything. You may be genuinely confused about what went wrong. But I can almost guarantee that there are members of your team who know what sent things off course or, at the very least, who can give you the puzzle pieces you need to see the big picture.
But to access that wealth of knowledge, you have to be open to hearing from your team.
Open communication is vital. Encourage your team to provide feedback and share their perspectives. This collective intelligence can offer insights you might not have considered and give you insight into parts of the process that aren’t always transparent to you.
Try this: After every significant project or event, especially ones that didn’t go as planned, hold a debriefing section. Create a safe space for your team to share their observations, thoughts, and suggestions. Not only will it help you grow and become more successful, it will show your team that setbacks are not catastrophes, they’re learning points and their insight is a valuable part of the process,
3. Resilience is a Muscle
Part of developing a growth mindset comes from intentional practice; like everything else, cultivating a growth mindset relies on your belief that your thought patterns themselves can grow, improve, and evolve.
Just as muscles grow stronger with exercise, our ability to bounce back from setbacks improves the more we practice resilience. Over time, as you flex your growth mindset, you’ll find that you’re not only recovering from setbacks faster, but you’re also navigating them with greater agility and confidence.
Once you accept that setbacks are an inevitable part of your leadership journey, you can stop stifling your growth because you fear them. When you dig into a growth mindset, setbacks can be transformed into powerful stepping-stones toward success.
The next time you face a challenge, remind yourself:
It’s not about the fall, but how you rise.
Embrace the lesson, foster open communication, and strengthen your resilience. Your future self, and your team, will thank you for it.
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