One of the hardest parts of leadership can be disappointment. It doesn’t matter where you are leading; if you dare to lead, you will experience disappointment. You might be disappointed in the outcome of an event, project or initiative. You might be disappointed in those you lead and those with whom you collaborate. The disappointment might center on a colleague who didn’t follow through, or a volunteer who proved less committed than first thought. It might settle around how your group did or did not engage. You may even be disappointed with yourself. Disappointment is inherent to leading. It’s not a matter of if, or even so much when it will hit; what’s important is how you deal with it.
So, what do you do when you are disappointed as a leader in any of the above mentioned possibilities? What do you do with disappointment?
As I reflect on that question I want suggest just a few steps that have emerged over time, in my own practice of leading. These are steps I try to follow when disappointment makes an appearance:
Step One: Examine the source of your disappointment
In this step you are not just looking for the presenting source, but the underlying source. For example, you may be disappointed you didn’t reach a particular group identified goal. The falling short of that goal is an outcome that registers a feeling of disappointment. But the source for that disappointment (not reaching the goal) may lie in a number of variables that led up to the goal. Did you communicate sufficiently? Was the communication clear? Did you create ownership opportunities for the group to embrace the goal? Was your implementation plan equal to or greater in emphasis than the setting of the goal itself?
When you begin to examine disappointment from this underlying source line of questioning, you can usually track the source back to its beginnings.
Step Two: Learn from the experience
Tracing the source of disappointment can become a learning opportunity for both the leader and the group. This is the next step in dealing with disappointment.
Let’s assume you are disappointed that a volunteer did not exhibit the commitment or “buy in” you had hoped for in an initiative. In your source work you discover (maybe through dialogue with that volunteer or another team member) that the objective was never as clear or critical to the volunteer as it was to the leaders. This reorients disappointment away from a personal assignment to a problem in communication or team building. That learning then becomes an opportunity for reflection and ultimately correction the next time.
Discovering the source of the problem can bring you back for another attempt at leadership much quicker. The key questions being: “What have I/we learned?” “What do we need to do differently?”
Step Three: Don’t punish the one who did not disappoint
Perhaps the worst thing we, as leaders, can do when disappointed is to take out our disappointment on persons who have no reason to be punished. For example, how many times have you been in a public gathering that failed to live up to the attendance the leader team hoped for? Inevitably one of the convening speakers will welcome the group with a lukewarm greeting that says something like: “We had hoped there would be more people here tonight. It’s too bad, they’re really going to miss something great. Welcome.”
By now those faithful folk who did gather are thinking: “We must not matter.” And, “This really great thing isn’t sounding so great!” Don’t punish the faithful, those who follow through, the ones who express interest and show up.
Effective leadership is more about working with those who show up than it is about lamenting those who do not. Work with those who come and express interest.
Step Four: Look in the mirror
When I’ve been most deeply disappointed about something that involved my leadership, it has been very important for me to eventually look in the mirror and assess what my role as leader was in the disappointment. This cannot always happen early in the disappointment. Sometimes it is too raw or fresh. But without looking in the mirror and asking those questions of self, we fail to grow and improve.
I wish I could tell you that disappointments will cease to be part of our leadership efforts. Even if I did, you would know better. Remember, it’s not “if” or even “when” that matters, but “how” we choose to deal with the disappointments that will further our growth and development as leaders.
So, what do you do with disappointment?