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Leadership by “The Book”. (And How Great Leaders Respond to Failure.)

January 22, 2015



I live in a small, rural community in Eastern Montana. This week our “small time” has gone “big time” due to a ruptured oil pipeline that spewed 50,000 gallons of Bakken crude into the Yellowstone River and contaminated our water supply—effectively turning us into a Third-World-don’t-drink-the-water kind of locale.

(Maybe you’ve heard mention of the story? Here’s an article from CNN. And a video from The Rachel Maddow Show.)

Not exactly how we like to get notoriety around here—we’re known more for our big skies, amber waves of grain, T-Rex, and mouth-watering hunks of meat. (Cows, people. I’m talking about the Montana beef!) Nonetheless, here we are.

The Inherent Problem with “The Book”
With a front-row seat to the events around here, I’ve been witness to the actions & reactions of local, state, and federal leaders in charge of the disaster response. I’m also witness to their vilification by many citizens and the public over how the Unified Command has been handling the situation. Like with many post-mortem learnings from disasters and crisis, we’ve experienced a huge issue with communication. Not gonna lie, factual information was a trickle in the first 48-hours and the face of leadership seemed remarkably…absent. (For the record: Now that a few days have gone by, we can see that these officials are working their tails off to keep residents safe and clean up this mess.)

Communication, obviously a problem. But inherently, not THE problem. These leaders are intelligent and highly experienced, and yet they’ve found themselves in a real (and very public) pickle, because “the book” for cleaning up an oil spill doesn’t cover how to do it in Montana. In harsh January winter conditions. In a river that is covered by a 2-foot-thick sheet of ice and raging underneath—where crews are struggling to even locate the oil for clean-up.

No chapter has ever been written for this.

Sometimes as leaders we fail. Even when we are doing everything by the book. Tweet: Sometimes as leaders we fail. Even when we're doing everything by the book. #livehugefactor #leadundaunted

How to Respond to Failure

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge & controversy.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As leaders, the spotlight is often shining directly on us and highlighting our every move. It sees our sweat. Our tears. Our wins. Our losses. Our uncertainty. Our letdowns….our mistakes. It’s easy to bask in the light of good news and success, but the measure of great leadership is found in our response to failure. Tweet: It’s easy to bask in the light of success, but the measure of great leadership is found in our response to failure.

These are some of the ways great leaders act in response to failure:

Pick yourself up by the bootstraps.
Own your mistakes and learn from them.
Say you’re sorry when and where you need to (and mean it).
Stop talking. Get present and listen deeply to the people who were impacted.

And then, when the challenge or crisis is over >> Step up and lead the process of re-writing “the book”, so the future can create a different experience.

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” – Henry Ford

What about you? How do YOU see great leaders respond to failure? How do you respond to failure in your own work and life?

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