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The Question to Pose After Painful Leadership
Bad things happen to good leaders.
Throughout the course of a career and life, matters unfold in unpredictable ways, often causing pain or upset. Such episodes create regret, remorse, or the strong desire for a “do-over.”
Unfortunately, there are no do-overs, only resolve to not make the same mistake or react in the same way in the future. Worse yet, when something reminds a leader of the painful moment or event, they unwittingly relive the negative feelings they experienced.
While time can dull those memories, painful episodes never disappear or go away completely. The worst events stay stuck in the back of the mind, ready to move forward for yet another round of agonizing reflection.
To avoid the distress and sour moods associated with those memories and to find a silver lining, leaders are often advised to reflect most deeply on the learnings the misstep or experience offers. The learning takeaway from a bad experience helps to reframe the event and turn it from hugely painful to one of value. This reframing can serve as a powerful way to create a very different memory, one where the learning matters more than the negative emotions involved.
But asking a more precise question regarding the negative event can make a world of difference. Instead of, “What did I learn?” or “What will I do differently next time?” a more powerful question is: “How can the experience make me a better leader and person?” It sounds like a subtle difference, but it changes a leader’s perspective in an unusual way.
Learning from any event or episode, even the most painful ones, is essential for personal growth. We stand to repeat the same mistake if we don’t reflect accurately on our role in the process and what we could do differently in the future. But the move toward internalizing this learning and making it about the person we want to be in the future blazes a different path.
How the negative experience can make the leader a better person going forward is not just a learning or insight. It is a commitment. That commitment redirects the energy surrounding the memory and suggests the experience plays an invaluable role in who the leader wants to be in the future. Once reframed in this way, reflecting upon the memory serves as reminder of the commitment and not of the painful emotions that surrounded the episode.
Try this for just a few minutes. Think about a negative or painful episode in your leadership life. In your head, list a few of the lessons or takeaways that you might draw from the experience. Now pose the question: How can this experience make me a better leader and person?
Land hard on your conclusion. Commit to this answer. Watch how quickly it shapes your perspective of the experience going forward. Strangely enough, your memory will now revolve around your commitment and not around the negative emotions from the episode. Amazing, really.