Even the most strategic leaders face disappointments.

Even the most strategic leaders suffer serious disappointments.  When the disappointment is connected to your top performer, that pain is real.  It makes sense though – you have invested in grooming, supporting, and advocating for this person.  They had your confidence, and they had your trust. 

In the last few weeks, this issue has come up three times in my world. Two executive coaching clients and one good friend (also a rock-star executive). The specifics were all different, but what each went through personally was nearly identical. 

In hindsight, each of these very strategic leaders said the signs pointing at something seriously wrong had been around for quite a while. Likewise, each shared legitimate-enough reasons for ignoring the signs their top-performer could derail.          

“It is an anomaly. He will snap out of it…”  

“She is so smart – brilliant in her field. She’ll re-direct herself soon…” 

“We have this record of accomplishment of success and have worked together so closely. This cannot be what it looks like…” 

If you have been a leader for more than a minute, I’m sure you’ve had your share of disappointments. I know I have. What I had not realized though, is suffering these top-performer-centered disappointments is experienced like grief. Even seriously strategic leaders experience shock, denial, anger, depression and, finally, acceptance (followed by swift action). 

I’ve pondered this disappointment-grief connection for a couple of weeks now and I am a little embarrassed I have not made it before.  Deep disappointment, regardless of the venue, is a loss.  Loss of something you thought was time-tested, loss of confidence, loss of trust… The reality is, any loss can trigger the stages of grief. 

As a leadership coach, much of what I talk about with clients is connected to emotional intelligence. Through the lenses of the three leaders mentioned, I’ve learned self-awareness and self-compassion are critical for navigating deep disappointment. Self awareness helps you identify the emotions you are feeling. Simply naming them helps them move through you. Self-compassion helps you skip self-blame and navigate through what you are feeling, as you decide your best course of action.

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope” – Martin Luther King, Jr. 

So! This is for all you strong and strategic leaders. The next time disappointment rears its head, I hope you will remember these tips: 

  1. Acknowledge your feelings.  

It is natural to feel shocked, disappointed, frustrated, sad, and/or angry when a top performer derails. Acknowledging how you feel (even if only to yourself) helps the uncomfortable emotions move through you. As they do, you get closer to deciding how you will deal with the situation.  

  1. Communicate early and constructively. 

When you see the signs, you are probably right. But don’t act based on assumptions alone! Schedule a one-on-one and share what sent up the caution flag for you. Be clear about your expectations and give your top performer a chance to share his/her “story” too. Together, you can establish and agree on the next steps. 

The sooner you begin open communication about your concerns, the better chance you get to the remedy quickly.  

  1. Remember the second chances you got along the way. 

If you have made it to a strategic leadership position, you did not do it alone. Think about your favorite mentors and bosses along the way. I bet they were not so impulsively decisive that you didn’t get a chance to learn from a mistake.  However, the critical thing with second chances is the LEARNING involved. Your top-performer must demonstrate new behaviors, better results… whatever is behind the disappointment.  

Be sure to recognize, you may need to play an active role in the “learning” part. This may be through mentoring, providing training, or experiential opportunities.  

In the end, working through disappointments is an unfortunate, but guaranteed, scenario for strategic leaders. Your direct reports are human. Remember, these are also opportunities for you to shine as a leader – for yourself, the top-performer, and your organization.  

Contact us to learn more about the benefits of leadership coaching for your team. 

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