10 Steps great leaders take when things go wrong

GetSmarter; Text: Danica van der Veen

October 16, 2015

10 Steps great leaders take when things go wrongMaybe you came up with a new process or initiative that didn’t go according to plan. Perhaps you created a product that just wouldn’t sell. Or you weren’t able to win a pitch to an important prospective client.

If you want to grow as a leader in your workplace, then you need to be prepared for the times when ‘things’ hit the fan… No matter what failure you may face, you need to be confident, calm and ready to get the ball rolling again.

Mistakes always happen. And at the end of the day, what really matters is how you embrace and deal with your mistakes. This is what defines your character as a leader.

GetSmarter, an online education company specialising in short courses for working professionals, has given us 10 steps to take when confronted by adversity in the workplace.

1 Great leaders accept that failure is inevitable

If you accept that failing is part of the process, you will be motivated to try harder and take more risks. Ever heard of Traf-O-Data? Yeah, we didn’t think so. It’s a company that Bill Gates (we’re certain you’ve heard of him) started after dropping out of Harvard. And it was a total flop. Yip, Bill failed, but he didn’t give up! He took a risk and went on to build the Microsoft empire and is now one of the wealthiest people in the world. #JustSaying

2 Great leaders confront failure

From birth we are taught that making mistakes is a bad thing. Drawing on the wall with a permanent marker lead to a hiding… Getting a bad mark on an important exam meant a three month grounding… Memories of past failures are often quite painful and trigger negative emotions like fear and anxiety which can prevent you from taking risks now. You need to confront your failure, not run from it. Try taking time to reflect on your past mistakes, evaluate how you could have improved the situation, and write down the lessons you have learned.

3 Great leaders are vulnerable

Successful leaders never hide the fact that they make mistakes. If you mess up, open up to your team about it. This will help create an environment where they too can admit their failures. Surround yourself with a strong team who will rally behind you when things go wrong, or a mentor who will hold you accountable and offer guidance. This will ensure you don’t make the same mistake twice.

4 Great leaders fail forward

It’s time to change your perspective: see your failures as stepping stones to greatness, and let go of your fear of getting it wrong. Motivate yourself by writing down inspirational quotes or stories from people who failed before becoming successful. Stick them up in your office, and whenever you feel defeated use them as your mantra.

5 Great leaders recover fast

When something goes wrong, people will inevitably seek context. The best leaders don’t let the burden of ‘the blame’ get to them. Help everyone understand the circumstances and causes of the problem. Respond confidently with solutions.

6 Great leaders fight back

Here’s a rather sad fact to mull over: 35% of dismissed CEOs return to an active executive role within two years of departure, but 43% effectively end their careers. Some leaders are really hard on themselves after a mistake, and often dwell on the past rather than looking to the future. The ability to rise above failure is an essential characteristic of a great leader. So instead of feeling sorry for yourself, learn to fight back and be energised by failure, and look for the opportunities it brings.

7 Great leaders make tough choices

You truly do become wiser because of your failures. Weigh up the worth of your mistake and decide whether it’s worth fighting for or letting go of. Develop a strategy to move forward, trust your instincts. Did you know that the first product Sony ever made was a rice cooker? A rice cooker that was notorious for burning rice rather than cooking it. The company made the choice to abandon this idea, and moved on to building a multi-million dollar software company.

8 Great leaders realise their responsibility

How are you using the lessons you have learned to influence those around you? As a leader, you have a duty to overcome adversity. Appreciate it because great leaders can have profound impact on others.  Find innovative ways to improve your skills and become a more effective leader for your team.

9 Great leaders take on for the team

Sometimes your team will want to make dodgy decisions, the kind that could achieve the greatest success, or go horribly horribly wrong. Be prepared to have their backs if they do fail, but let them take the risk anyway. Establish a company culture where failure and risk are celebrated.

10 Great leaders know when to take a step back

It’s reflection time again! Take a step back and consider the failures you identified, the lessons learnt and the opportunities available. Write down how these things have impacted you as a leader. Use this as a reminder for the next time something goes wrong. One question to always keep in your mind: How will you use today’s failure for tomorrow’s success?

GetSmarter partners with top-tier Universities to present career-focused online short courses, postgraduate programmes, and professional accounting programmes. Visit

Not sure how long you should really stay in your current job? Read this post on how to know when it’s time to move on.

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