We have all experienced it. Breakdown.
The best laid plans fall through. Our best efforts for a new product launch fall way short of expectations. The new person we hired to solve problems has failed to fix things in that department, leaving us to question our wisdom in hiring them.
The list goes on.
As leaders, we set our sights on creating a breakthrough, and sometimes what we end up with is breakdown.
What is the best way to handle a situation like this?
Sticky Leadership – Learning to Love Uphill
In my leadership book, I categorize this under learning to love uphill. Disappointment and failed attempts are a normal part of leadership, and while we don’t set out expecting failure, we know it happens. As leaders, our job is to develop a relationship with the effort needed to keep moving forward, despite the outcomes. It can feel like having to once again pedal uphill, dreaming of the joy of descent – which, in the moment, isn’t fun. It’s hard work. But, once we reach the crest of the hill, our efforts pay off, advancing now downhill for a while.
Do Breakthroughs begin as Breakdowns?
What if all Breakthroughs begin as Breakdowns? We live by the illusion that there is some silver bullet for success. Reading of great leaders, the context of the story is frequently shaped by the success of the individual. Are there any books about great leaders that are shaped by their failure? We don’t tend to focus on that, and it probably doesn’t sell books.
However, maybe the true nature of great leadership is embracing the truth that Breakdowns precede our Breakthroughs. Trusting that is the way it works, we develop a taste and strategy for how we approach the “uphill climb”.
Here are just a few fun facts about Breakdowns successful people choose to overcome and convert to Breakthroughs:
Soichiro Honda – When Honda, an engineer for whom the popular car company is named, first failed to get a job with now-competitor Toyota, he took to making scooters in his own garage. His period of unemployment lead him to create the billion-dollar business.
The Beatles – When they auditioned for Decca Records in 1962, Dick Rowe told their manager Brian Epstein, “Guitar groups are on their way out”. They obviously didn’t listen.
Walt Disney – In 1919 was fired from the Kansas City Star because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas”, according to his editor.
Taylor Swift – At age eleven she had a vision and struggled to find a record label in Nashville. During a middle school break she took a demo CD of her singing karaoke covers of country stars Dolly Parton, the Dixie Chicks, and LeAnn Rimes to Music Row and handed them to as many music label receptionists as she could. She wasn’t signed because “everyone in that town wanted to do what she wanted to do”.
Charles Schultz – Famous “Peanuts” comic strip inventor experienced rejection early on. None of the cartoon drawings he designed for his high school yearbook were ever selected to be published, and later Walt Disney turned him down for a job. It looks like it’s a good thing he believed that “you can’t create humor out of happiness”.
J.K. Rowling – Author of the popular Harry Potter series was broke, divorced, and a single mother struggling to get by on welfare. In a matter of five years, her series took off, leading her to become the first billionaire author.
The list goes on. Breakdowns tend to precede Breakthroughs. Perhaps it’s normal? If we really embraced this thinking, how would it impact future situations when we are facing a disappointment or failure?
Here is a simple exercise:
Clearly hold in mind your vision of what you are creating or what you see yourself and your team accomplishing. It is your dream of success that puts you in good company of all those people mentioned above. Remember that all you have to work with as a leader is your depth of commitment to the Breakthrough you envision. This is the anchor that will hold you steady in rough seas – the seas of high emotions, disappointment, and apparent rejection.
There are six steps to a Breakthrough:
- Identify the dominant constraint keeping the right things from happening. A constraint is a blockage, obstacle, form of resistance – that when removed, things will naturally move in the direction you intend. Focus on removing just this one obstacle.
- Get intimate with what is occurring now.
What is current reality? So often we resist the truth of what we need to learn or understand—while being activated by our unwavering commitment to the vision. I’ve noticed the best leaders don’t resist camping out to research and study what happened, and reasons things didn’t go as planned. Breakthroughs are built on the learnings from breakdown experiences.
- Cast or recast the vision for the ideal future.
Sometimes what we learned in the Breakdown adds a new element or dimension to the vision that makes it more appealing and more likely to succeed. Don’t be afraid to freshen up your vision, maintaining focus on your key commitments.
- Re-examine what you believe is the number one constraint standing between the fresh vision and current reality.
Now you have more data and a clear view of what is needed to remove it. The Breakthrough process refines our vision and sharpens our focus every time we fail.
- Develop a strategy to overcome the single biggest constraint.
A good strategy is simple, involves how we think and what we do, and is easily communicated to others.
- Apply the needed energy to work the strategy.
Energy comes in many forms, and knowing how to use smart energy is important. Sometimes it’s building relationships, other times pushing through when stopping looks attractive, still other situations require real time problem solving, and some situations require paying close attention to the facts.
Converting Breakdowns to Breakthroughs may be one of the most valuable leadership abilities you have. Begin with the right mindset, and then follow a reliable process. After every uphill climb is the joy and ease of a downhill rush to your destination.
Larry’s book Sticky Leadership goes into detail about the best approach to converting Breakdowns to Breakthroughs.