(By Keld Jensen)
“Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison before becoming the first President of South Africa to be elected in a fully representative democratic election. During his time in jail, he kept a scrap of paper in his cell that contained the words of a poem by William Ernest Henley, entitled “Invictus.” It ends with the famous lines, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
Steve Jobs was fired from his own company; Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison; and Abraham Lincoln failed in business, had a nervous breakdown, and was defeated in eight elections. So how did all these people achieve such extraordinary success?
We all know of business leaders, authors, celebrities, and sports stars who after a brief moment in the sun hit rock bottom only to rise again, overcome adverse circumstances, claw their way back to the top, and inspire the world around them. The stuff of legends and Hollywood movies, these comeback stories are incredible to hear. But when failure is fresh, and it’s yours, it’s often hard to believe that recovery, let alone success, is possible.
From rejection to workplace screw-ups, everyone has experienced that all-too-familiar gut-wrenching numbness. Even small failures can stalk you like a dark cloud, causing others to question your abilities. Worse, it can seriously undermine your self-assurance.
In my early years in business, I nearly drove a company I had founded bankrupt. I betrayed my own values and goals and lost everything, including the support of many important people in my life. However, it was from this adversity that I discovered the three keys to overcoming failure:
Responsibility: Be Your Own Master
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison before becoming the first President of South Africa to be elected in a fully representative democratic election. During his time in jail, he kept a scrap of paper in his cell that contained the words of a poem by William Ernest Henley, entitled “Invictus.” It ends with the famous lines, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
To make it through times of extreme adversity, you need to embody these words. Take responsibility for the results you create in your life, and keep agreements with yourself. They are at least as important as agreements with others.
Self-Acceptance: Find Peace with Yourself
From his eight election failures to the civil war, perhaps no U.S. president suffered more hardship than Abraham Lincoln. But throughout his presidency he remained steadfast, and was even quoted saying that if by the end of his term, “I have lost every other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside of me.”
Always show loyalty to yourself. Embrace your weaknesses and shortcomings, but work to turn them into strengths. You cannot control the negative opinions of people around you, but with self-acceptance, you can block out the noise.
As Steve Jobs once said during a famous commencement speech, “You have to trust in something. Your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well worn path.”
Human beings are often irrational, but you should always trust your intuition and your instincts. Make your judgments based on experience and listen to your gut. Understand that you will make wrong decisions and you will fail but that, without these experiences, you’ve never truly lived.
How Great Leaders Overcome Failure
Having the skills and the wherewithal to rebuild your platform requires you to 1.) take responsibility for the bad result and negotiate your way out of it, 2.) refuse to be deterred by a set-back that five years from now will be nothing more than a great learning experience, and 3.) proceed with utmost integrity using both your heart and your mind to guide you along the road back.
As the leaders of corporate organizations and entrepreneurial ventures, we put ourselves on the line every day. Adversity is always looming, and the opportunities for failure are ever-present. Things can break in the most unlikely of places (sometimes totally beyond your control), but you still own the result.
When you hit rock bottom – and you probably will at some point in your life – rely on the package of skills that gets leaders to the top in the first place. I call these the Skills of Engagement™:
- Listening actively
- Thinking critically
- Communicating transparently
- Owning the result
- Influencing obstructionists, the timid, and the disengaged
- Negotiating a favorable outcome
Also remember that you will not be able to make the climb back to the top alone. Assembling a stellar team and defining an interpersonal dynamic based on the Skills of Engagement are the building blocks of your resurgence. If you mix these with a little unabashed charisma, you may even take pleasure in the challenges of the journey back.
The great paradox is that the people who enjoy the most public successes often endure the greatest private failures. However, these leaders understand, and even expect, that storms will come their way. They also realize that it’s how they handle the dark moments that gives them the internal strength to shine during their brightest ones.
So stand tall when you hit rock bottom, and focus on the wise proverb “this too shall pass…” While it might not seem like it at the time, with responsibility, self-acceptance, and trust, you can leverage the Skills of Engagement and overcome even your greatest failures.