How To Rebound From Failure While In A Leadership Position

dr. jarvis sanford

Educational leadership can feel like a lonely island- even more so when you’re facing failure. This can come in many forms since highly public figures are often the target of misplaced (or well placed) frustration. As a result, it can be difficult to bounce back from failures and criticism in these roles.

Speaker Denis Waitley said, “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”

As a leader in education, Dr. Jarvis Sanford offers some of his best guidance when it comes to rebounding from failure in a leadership position.

Failing to Achieve Long Term Goals for your Organization

So much goes into establishing long term goals, including pouring over testing results and items that you may have even campaigned on while on the road to the position you now hold. When our organization fails to meet these goals we set out to accomplish, it’s hard not to internalize these failures, as there are many moving pieces that make or break your success.

When it’s time to pick up the pieces and move forward, take time to assess the progress your organization has made in pursuit of its goals. Many times, your team’s concentrated efforts have improved certain metrics like testing scores or improved feedback from teachers, parents, and students. Even though the improvement may not reach the benchmarks you set out to hit, any and all improvement should be celebrated. John Maxwell describes this as “falling forward.”

We should also remember that it can often take a longer period of time with small corrections to right the path of a ship. Sometimes, even with just a bit more time on the correct trajectory, you’ll be able to meet or exceed the goals you’ve set for your team, just not in your original timeframe.

Pressure from Outside Agitators

As leaders, we are often easy targets for criticism. Because we are seen as figureheads and mouthpieces of our districts, we more often than not take heat from individuals both inside and outside of our organizations for things that we usually do not directly control. If a student or staff member sets a foot out of line in the community or within our walls, we are more than likely going to receive feedback as a responsible party. Similarly, advocates for different groups inject themselves, and often rightfully so, into district business in an effort to improve our operations.

Receiving pressure from outside influences can be an uncomfortable experience at best and unwelcome distraction at worst. Combatting or cooperating with these parties can feel like a sacrifice in terms of our district’s goals; however, to relieve the pressure and make peace with the turbulence outside agitators create, seek first to understand.

What changes are these parties trying to create? Does it align with the values of our organization? Do their concerns have merit? You may be surprised that some voices simply wish to be heard and considered in the decision making process, without any immediate action taking place. You can likely relieve these voices and your surging inbox by listening and empathizing with the parties behind them.

You’ll likely be more compassionate towards these causes and become a better leader for your district’s constituency. Accepting and responding to outside feedback is difficult to do, especially in a public forum. It’s important to compartmentalize district operations apart from personal ego to rebound quickly as a leader. You’ll also be able to provide a much more subjective response to the challenges you face.

Inability to Build a Cohesive Team

Any great leader will attribute their success to the team they’ve built behind them. What happens when you haven’t been able to build a cohesive team to move the organization ahead? Bringing the right individuals into the right positions can greatly accelerate results; however, sourcing those team members and retaining those team members can prove challenging in today’s marketplace. We can examine the issue of team building from two different angles: looking within our walls or looking outside of the organization.

When we look at our existing roster, we may, in fact, already have the right “players” on our team. Lack of cohesion is usually driven by two factors: communication and consistency. It is up to us to determine how to impact either of these factors to achieve the results we are looking for. This may take one-on-ones prior to opening up discussions, and many times we need to look within ourselves to ask if we are truly delivering on the expectations and resources our team members need to do their jobs. It’s been found that the performance and relationship with superiors is key when evaluating job satisfaction, which would directly impact how well a team functions together.

When looking outside of the organization for talent, we may fall short when we don’t make staffing of key positions a priority. Leaving roles vacant or having them staffed by the wrong individuals will lead to important work filtering down to under qualified staff members.

In either case, understand that staffing and team building are actionable items that you as a leader can address. This can be done either by developing your existing staff or by bringing in experienced team members who successfully collaborate with your organization on shared goals.

Pushback from Staff, Parents, and Students on Your Strategic Vision

Pushback from existing staff, parents, and students goes hand in hand with building a cohesive team. Education can prove to be a very personal endeavor, and when policy is put in place, it may cause friction in individual circumstances.

Short sighted players may fail to see the merits of your overall strategic vision. The short term hurdles may include extra work on the front end of a project or simply taking individuals out of their comfort zone when rolling out a new program.

One of the most painful failures may be to see stakeholders fight among themselves on policy and actions designed to help all involved parties. While all families may benefit from district initiatives, some parties seek to undo the greater good when they see a peer receiving “a bigger piece of the pie.”

Take time to meet with those that are experiencing friction to discuss their concerns and pain points. From there, you can hopefully explain the greater goal to achieve buy-in or incorporate their point of view. Another tactic is to approach a known ally who may better present the data in such a way that may appeal to an opponent.

Provided that aspects of your vision are well researched and implemented compassionately, be assured that every great plan will receive opposition. As leaders, we will never be without our critics.

Failure to Get Your Budget Passed

All or part of a budget not being approved can be frustrating at best. Sometimes the budget details may be items that we spoke on while being interviewed for a position or the very priorities that we campaigned upon. It’s as if the rug has been pulled from under you by the same people that helped put you in your position.

Rather than accepting defeat, challenge your new budget by doing as much as you can with what you have at your disposal. You’ve been selected for your position due to the trust in your experience and knowledge of how to provide the best education for your students. Now it’s a matter of constructing the new and more efficient puzzle from your newly appointed resources.

Failed Relationship with Superiors

When we fail to deliver on expectations of our superiors, we can be left feeling deflated. Or sometimes, we deliver as promised and still receive rejection from those that are tasked with guiding our careers or helping develop us professionally. In either case, not receiving acceptance from our superiors can leave us asking “What did I do? Where did I go wrong? Why don’t they have my back?”

As a professional, the best approach is to ask for direct feedback, analyze your own performance, and then look to improve upon any areas where you may have fallen short. Aside from that, continue to provide an unending source of value in any way that you can in your role, both to your superiors and to those you serve. Some individuals, regardless of the results they receive, may never be satisfied. In any case, it’s always preferable to over deliver, especially to a colleague to whom you’re accountable.

Parting Thoughts on Facing Failure as an Educational Leader

When we reflect upon Mr. Waitley’s quote from earlier, we see that the only way to avoid failure is to avoid seeking to move the needle in our endeavors in the first place, which is not in your nature as a leader. Failure can and will lead you to a better solution.

Understand you’ll never avoid failure and rejection completely. Things like ego, dignity, and embarrassment are all individual reactions and not indicative of the organization as a whole. In a way, it’s hard to not take it personally, but it may be easier to move forward on a new plan of action and data gathering when you look at your organization as a machine that must continue to progress. Ultimately, the goal of providing the best education for your district is the most important endeavor, much more than the exact circumstances that achieve it.

I’d love to know in the comments below, what are some of your best practices when it comes to overcoming failure and difficulty in your position? As always, you can also contact me directly to continue the conversation.

Dr. Jarvis Sanford
Dr. Jarvis Sanford of Chicago shares news about innovation in medical technology. Please subscribe for updates.