The Limits of Managing Disappointment

by  William Powell  |  Self Leadership

We all become disappointed in something sooner or later. We can be disappointed with our finances. We can be disappointed with our government. We can be disappointed with the choices of those close to us. There are a number of things that can disappoint us at any given moment. Often times, we become disappointed with what we do for a living. As a leader, the impact of this can reach much further than a momentary experience of frustration.

Disappointment has a funny way of whittling away at our expectations. No one truly enjoys the feeling of being disappointed, so to avoid it we can have a tendency to adjust what we expect in order to evade that sinking feeling we get when we become disappointed. We adjust our perception of reality and then allow that new perspective govern our worldview. Some might argue this is developing wisdom, but as a leader we both know this can begin to chip away at the effectiveness of how we lead.

If we don’t make it a point to stay on top of things when we experience disappointment, we can easily slide into assuming a defensive posture. Sometimes we simply made a poor choice or some minor mistake that had greater impact than we could have imagined. It was a learning process for us. Do we let the disappointment from that learning experience diminish future possibilities?

As leaders, we purposefully put ourselves in harm’s way so to speak. We throw our head on the chopping block with every chance, initiative, and decision we make. It is what we do. Leadership just wouldn’t be leadership without this taking place. We fail, pick ourselves up, and have another go at it. Failure is all part of the process. We read about it and we talk about it. What we seem to leave off the table is how gun shy we can become after taking one on the chin.

I know I have had to re-visit a number of disappointments from my past and allow myself to adjust how I viewed what was possible. Like I said, this response to being disappointed can slip under the radar cleverly disguised as wisdom but are we allowing wisdom to be the fall guy and some cheap excuse for limiting what we believe can be possible? Sometimes my disappointment came from not what I did, but how I did it. Other times it was just dumb timing.

Think back to some disappointments and pay attention to your response. Did it place an unnecessary limitation on the possibilities you perceive that are available? We love to get all worked up from the emotional charge that comes from the statement, “Everything is possible!”, but does our internal dialogue truly support that? The next time you find yourself drifting towards what can’t be done, it might be in your best interest (and those you lead) to make sure it’s not just you lowering your expectations to try and manage or avoid a feeling of being disappointed.

If, as a leader, you are “lowering your standards to up your average” then you are teaching those you lead to do the same. When you’re not around to keep things moving forward, this is definitely not the mentality you want ruling the roost while you’re out. We don’t have to be superheros and never be affected by disappointments, we just need a healthy and more objective response to them. What an amazing thing to be able to show to those you lead…that disappointments in the past aren’t some prophetic gesture to how things have to play out in the future.

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John D. Watt  |  21 Sep 2010  |  Reply

William, clearly you are hanging out smack down in the middle of where I’m living right now! Great reminder not to dumb-down our leadership style and vision. What suggestions do you –and others– have for strategies and tangible “healthy and objective responses” when disappointments are encountered?

William Powell  |  21 Sep 2010  |  Reply

“Dumb down our leadership”… perfect description John! One of the most effective strategies I’ve seen many of my clients use was to make sure they didn’t take the disappointment personally. It’s so easy to allow it to drift into our sense of identity and how we view ourselves.

We’ve all heard the axiom “Failure is an event, not a person”, so it’s important to keep that in mind. Keeping a clear distinction between your state of being (identity) and your state of doing (actions) will serve you quite well. The objectivity comes in when you acknowledge that you are disappointed in the results and not disappointed in who you view yourself to be.

Tristan Bishop  |  21 Sep 2010  |  Reply

Thank you, William!

I vividly relate to your point about “taking one on the chin” Recently, I was training in a self-defense system called Krav Maga. Unlike traditional martial arts, this class encourages contact. So the first time I took a right cross to the jaw … well, let’s just say it was disappointing! I knew I had to made certain it was the last and ONLY time. But there were two ways to make sure I never got hit like that again. 1) One was to adjust my hand position so I could block more effectively. 2) The other was to go home and never come back. After some soul-searching, I chose to return rather than run. But it was quite appealing to walk away altogether.

It’s so important for leaders to intentionally examine failures, to ensure that we don’t learn the wrong lessons. If setbacks become “giveups”, we have missed the point. Thomas Edison has my favorite quote on the topic: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

William Powell  |  21 Sep 2010  |  Reply

Love your response Tristan. You’re absolutely right. Being able to self critique without self-berating is so important for a leader.

Erin Schreyer  |  21 Sep 2010  |  Reply

William, way to represent Cincinnati, brother!! Great to see your post here!

This is a great, but challenging perspective. I’m sure nobody wants to believe they are lowering the bar for the sake of our own self-preservation. I love how you really make us think.

Resilience is, without question, a necessary attribute for successful leadership. We are all going to fail at times, for certain. What we need to be cognizant of is how quickly we brush ourselves off AND how quickly we begin standing just as upright as before!

Thanks for the reminder today, as well as for the challenge to really think about how we could be limiting ourselves. This is always worth the extra thought!!

William Powell  |  21 Sep 2010  |  Reply

You’re always so positive Erin. Love that about you! Definitely a challenge for leaders, but that’s what it’s all about, right? Being willing to go to that place and conquer it so others see it’s possible.

Mike Henry  |  21 Sep 2010  |  Reply

In response to John’s question above, I read a great newsletter a week or so ago where Fred Smith Sr. had suggested 4 steps to dealing with loss. The last step in that process seemed most helpful in that he suggested that we reorganize the future. The point was that we can’t let our disappointments define us. We must re-cast success in spite of the disappointment.

That’s just one suggestion. Others?

William Powell  |  21 Sep 2010  |  Reply

Yes, yes, yes Mike. You point out something that I didn’t drive home in the post. Disappointments can cause us to stay focused on the past and fearful of the future. If we “re-cast success” for the future, hope and excitement returns. Very good point!

Shawn Murphy  |  21 Sep 2010  |  Reply

What a well written, genuine post. An immediate thought that comes to mind is one of my favorite quotes, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” It’s perhaps an unlikely source, Malcom X. It echoes a point you make that when we don’t lower our standards we show others the importance of standing for something, even if it’s not visible to most at the time. A powerful reminder you shared with us.

William Powell  |  22 Sep 2010  |  Reply

Thanks for the kudos Shawn. I appreciate your insight. A great perspective of showing the importance of standing for something. A definite must to move things forward…as an individual and as an organization.

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