Food for thought
How to Carry On in the Face of Failure?
by Karsten Drath
I have long been fascinated by the fact that some people bounce back and eventually thrive when confronted with a situation of own failure while others crack or permanently suffer. While at first this was a purely abstract and intellectual interest live gave me the chance to make my own experiences with failure.
Bouncing back from failure sounds good – in theory
After working as a business consultant for some time, a period that was certainly tough but during which I learned a lot, I found out what it meant to be confronted with my own limits as the manager of a large industrial corporation. I was responsible for a large international IT program with around 200 employees working at various locations around the world. We were successful but expensive. For many years I was responsible for a number of projects and had a lot of fun. During this time, there were many changes in top management but I remained firmly in the driving seat. And I was fit. I did lots of sport, regularly ran marathons and triathlons and even completed the famous Ironman competition. I was proud of myself and wanted others to admire me, too. But there was unrest at the company's headquarters and it was growing. I had critics who were of the opinion that the program was badly managed and also too expensive. People were undermining my position and I was in denial about it. My managers no longer supported me. On top of this, at home my marriage had been on the rocks for quite some time.
Failure is about losing control – and this feels terrible
From one day to the next, I could hardly hear anything with one ear. I was diagnosed a ‘stroke’ of the inner ear. I had the feeling that I was no longer in control of my body and that really frightened me. After a short period off sick during which I was given regular infusions, I returned to work. But I was much weaker and part of me did not want to continue anymore. In the meantime, the opposition had grown stronger and within less than a year I had lost my job. Overnight, the successful, ambitious manager I had been had been discarded. One noticeable difference was my email inbox which had gone from some 200 emails per day to nearly none in just a few days. The feeling of not being needed or wanted anymore was very intense indeed and caused me to have many sleepless nights. I felt the strong urge to take on the first job that came along, just so I would not have that feeling anymore. My then wife managed to persuade me not to do so and to endure the pain and this phase of uncertainty. I took half a year off and processed these experiences in my first book. After completing this sabbatical, I received an interesting and lucrative offer for an international management position, which I could not turn down. Looking back, this painful episode was the most valuable lesson in my life.
Experiencing failure can make you stronger – if you process it the right way
While I emerged stronger from this life crisis and – after some further moves in the IT sector – trained to become an entrepreneur and executive coach, my former boss who had always been a bundle of energy and good health, suffered from a major burnout, from which he never quite recovered. I spent a very long time wondering why.
When I came across the concept of resilience for the first time a few years ago and heard about the corresponding research, I was immediately fascinated.
Bouncing back can actually be learned
What enables people not only to overcome serious crises, but to actually emerge stronger from them? Which quality makes it possible for people to not only survive hostile conditions like those of the Third Reich concentration camps, but to leave them behind them and move forward in a healthy and life-affirming way? In spite of all their differences, what do all these people have in common and what can managers today learn from this?
Over the past few years, the relevance and urgency of this issue has grown immensely for me. This was partly due to the fact that, while training as an executive coach, I also completed an internship lasting several months at a reputable private psychosomatic clinic; I hoped to acquire a sound basic understanding of psychology, which I was of course lacking as an engineer and manager. There I became acquainted with numerous patients who were managers, who were but a shadow of their former selves, as I found out in conversations with them. This really touched me. At the same time, the topic had also become more relevant with the increasing decline of predictability in our social and professional environment, which has in recent years been accompanied by a rise in unforeseeable violence everywhere in the world and also by a wave of cases of burnout and suicides, including among top managers and people I know. Gaining an understanding of the concept of resilience in these times is therefore probably more important than ever before.
Even if the tone of some of the current discussions held on burnout can at times appear to be either hysterical or polemical, “resilience” does indeed remain an extremely relevant issue for companies today. So much so, in fact, that a major software company for which I have been working for a long time, is considering establishing “resilience” as a hiring criterion, since it is increasingly becoming a key competence that is perhaps even more important than intelligence, training or experience. And this company is not alone in thinking this way. Job applicants even describe themselves as resilient in job interviews.
Assessing one’s own resilience requires hindsight
The problem with resilience is that you only know in retrospect whether you are really resilient or not. It’s not a quality you are simply born with. Resilience is more the result of a complex process of adaptation by humans to better handle their environment, be it in the struggle to acquire market shares or in the power play among executive board members or in the fight against cancer: resilience is the key to mastering adverse circumstances.
Karsten Drath works with top managers and their teams to improve their leadership effectiveness and resilience. He is a certified Executive Coach and Psychotherapist, a published author and keynote speaker, and is one of the Managing Partners of Leadership Choices, an international consultancy focusing on leadership development at Top Management level. Looking back on more than 15 years of own leadership experience in several international roles he knows the challenges that come with the executive lifestyle and also how to cope with them.