Winners, Losers, and Leaders

Let’s face it, no one wants to lose.   Yet every great competition has a winner and loser.  Every year even the best of the best sports teams ultimately crowns only one champion and the runner-up becomes the first place loser.  That’s the cold reality of it.  But the good teams understand the process, that even the winners lose some time, and the greatest steps forward often come after the most painful defeats.    

“When defeat comes, accept it as a signal that your plans are not sound, rebuild those plans, and set sail once more toward your coveted goal.” Napoleon Hill

“Set sail once more toward your coveted goal”….this is where leaders step in and step up, a chance to regroup and reevaluate plans and then reengage the entire team to keep moving forward.   In business, leaders do it every day, and though it comes more naturally for some than others, it’s a skill that can’t be underestimated.  World championships may not be on the line, but the ramifications of losing a key account, missing an important deadline, missing a production goal, or chasing an elusive metric that you know is within reach; all trigger many of the same emotions that challenge championship caliber teams when they lose.

In business, when you’re winning you’re celebrating.  Maybe there isn’t a ticker tape parade, but rounds of accolades inside your company are common and keep everyone energized.  And hopefully your product or service is positively impacting your clients and its netting profit on your bottom line.  Leaders in this space usually look pretty good.  One of the biggest challenges can be keeping egos in check and getting employees to understand that their competition is coming after them and taking their good fortune for granted is a recipe for disaster.  But given the choice, most leaders would take winning.

Leading through a loss is not near as glamorous.  Yes, the significance of the loss plays into the impact on the team, but it can be extremely challenging to motivate and inspire a team that has put a tremendous amount of effort into a project or an account only to come up empty handed.  If you’ve been in a leadership position for long you have probably experienced this.  

Here’s a few steps that should be pretty universal across businesses to help you the next time a loss challenges your business or team.

Demonstrating Loss Leadership…

  1. Confirm the Foundation – It always start with the foundation.  Are all the values that built the business all still in place?  Is everyone on the team conducting themselves in a way that honors the values.
  2. Analyze Before Action – Take stock in the current situation and have an open conversation about what went right and wrong in the process that netted the end results.  It is rarely just one factor and usually what’s on the surface isn’t the actual issue.  The 5 Why Process works great for this.
  3. Take Ownership – When sports teams lose it is easy to see who the strongest leaders are by the way they answer post-game interview questions.  If they ever place blame on “one person” it is on themselves, everything else is about the team and they don’t make excuses.   This is really hard for some managers to do, because without self-promotion they fear they may miss a career promotion.  For business owners, pride often gets in the way and the unappreciated employees are more likely to look elsewhere for employment or become paycheck collectors instead of engaged aspiring leaders.
  4. Reset the Strategy Dial – Once the team is clear on how, what, and why the loss took place it’s time to reset.  Agree on a new plan to achieve the new or redefined goal you are going after. If there are any markers that need to be placed along the way to reach the goal be sure that everyone is clear on them.  Get direct ownership and buy-in from as many people on the team as possible.
  5. Communicate, Communicate! – Don’t underestimate the power of regular communication with your team.  With everyone living in a digital world we are forgetting the power of live communication.  One of the simplest and easiest meetings to implement is a short 15-30 minute meeting at the same time every week.  This is not a strategy session just a quick meeting for updates, a chance to answer questions, and clarify action items.  This meeting can literally make or break some businesses.  Communicate!

What about you?

What about you?  When is the last time you had to lead through a tough loss?  What did you learn?  What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome?  Have you ever been involved in a situation where a loss exposed a poor leader?  Did the team survive?   As always, we love to hear your thoughts in the space below.

Chris Steinlage Kansas City Business Coach.