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What to Do When You Fear Your Leadership Is Failing

It's one of the hard facts about leadership: no one ever tells you how to fail. Here's my own checklist, built, I assure you, on the solid ground of much and frequent leadership failure.
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You're a good leader, and you don't take the possibility of failure lightly. You realistically assess the possibility of failure in advance of any new initiative. You’ve set clear milestones that will help alert you when something is going off track. You're accountable for evaluating the relevant data accordingly, and you don’t blanch at objectively assessing the situation.

Now, (gulp), something has indeed gone wrong. Your new product launch has flopped, perhaps, or the fire marshal has just handed you a list of code violations that means the hospice won't open on time, or your team of anti-logging activists hasn’t received the visas they need to go on-site in Venezuela.

Now what?

Times of crisis, when you face imminent, impending failure -- even, sometimes, when you face certain failure -- are the crucible of leadership. It’s here, at these times, that your true leadership mettle will be tested. And yet, for most leaders, their response at such times is essentially improvised. Unless and until you’ve been through climactic situations multiple times, it's hard to know precisely what to do next in any given situation. And so, absent any clear guidelines, we make it up as we go along.

It’s one of the hard facts about leadership: no one ever tells you how to fail. Here’s my own checklist, built, I assure you, on the solid ground of much and frequent leadership failure:

Don’t procrastinate. In many leadership situations, an approach of benign neglect can be quite useful. Someone pressing you for an answer to something? Let it drift and they may well sort it out for themselves. 58 unanswered emails in your inbox? Mark them all as read and the important ones will come back ‘round again. Let me be clear: this precept doesn’t hold when potential failure looms. Once you’ve spotted the possibility that something might go badly wrong, block off the time you need to make a solid appraisal, and do just that.

Separate yourself from ‘it’. We all have egos, and it’s incredibly easy to become primarily concerned about the cost of failure to us personally, when in fact our primary concern should be first to the underlying enterprise or project. If you’re trying to stop abusive logging activity in Venezuela and your team’s visas haven’t come through, the first consideration must be to the campaign, not to your own position or emotions. Set your own emotional reaction aside, at least initially, and focus on the thing you’re trying to achieve as objectively as you can.

Apply triage principles: Is this fatal or not? If you’re a field doctor faced with two injured soldiers, one of whom may recover if you attend to them quickly, and the other with no hope of recovery whatever you do, it’s obvious (if heart-wrenching) which soldier you’re going to attend to immediately. And although most leadership situations are nowhere near as life-or-death (or as immediate), the same principle applies: is the nature of this failure fatal or not?

If your new product launch has flopped and, embarrassingly, barely anyone noticed, that’s one thing, but if in the process it’s hemorrhaging the organization of cash, that’s another situation entirely. If the fire code violations will delay the hospice opening by a month, that’s totally different than if it means the building you had acquired is entirely unfit for use.

Make the deliberation: Fix, rescue or scrap. Once you’ve separated yourself from the issue and swiftly diagnosed the extent of the failure, you’re ready to make the key decision: what next? In my experience, there are really only three options for a failing intuitive:

Fix it - When the issue is obvious and fixable, fix it. Get the money from somewhere, and bring the building up to code; go to the consulate’s office and fast-track the visas. Asking 'how do I fix this?' is usually the most obvious option in times of failure, and the one we subliminally default to - but it isn't the only option.

Rescue something - This option is appropriate if the project isn't fixable as it was initially envisaged, but something can be salvaged in the short- to medium-term. Maybe the new product you launched can’t be made to work in the market you’re in, but can be franchised to others overseas, for example, or perhaps you can sell the patents you developed during the R&D process to recoup some of your investment.

Scrap it - When neither option works, then it’s time to simply scrap the entire project. Because it is so obviously a public failure, this is often the last choice a leader will make, but the reality is, it's often the best decision in the circumstance. Anyone used their Zune recently?


Prepare yourself for what the future may bring. Download a free chapter from the author's WSJ best-seller, "Predictable Success: Getting Your Organization On the Growth Track - and Keeping It There" to learn more about building a world-class culture that will rapidly accelerate the growth of your business.

Last updated: Dec 3, 2013

LES MCKEOWN | Columnist

Les McKeown is the President & CEO of Predictable Success, a leading adviser on accelerated business growth. He has started more than 40 companies and was the founding partner of an incubation consulting company.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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