5 Ways to Lead Through a Setback

If you’re in leadership and business long enough, it’s inevitable you will encounter setbacks.

You deal with people. You build relationships. People sometimes get upset. Customers get upset. Things don’t always go your way.

What is interesting is what causes one leader to freeze in fear, elicits nothing more than a shake of the head from someone else. What causes the difference? Why are some people thrown into a state of fear and defeat, while others are able to absorb the blow and immediately move on?


Everyone fails. We all make mistakes. What matters is how you handle the mistakes – how you handle the setbacks. Does your character and integrity dictate your response, or is it more related to circumstances and events? One leads to personal growth; the other relegates us to blame and finger pointing.

Does your character and integrity dictate your response

Consider this scenario: Imagine you and your team have spent several months preparing to get your first product ready to launch. You all know it will be a success. The adrenaline carries you through several sleepless nights before the launch. You are ready!


And then nothing. A few orders, but nothing significant. The plan failed. The moment of truth has arrived. Your leadership will be tested. Your people are watching. How you (the leader) react will dictate success or failure.

You are faced with a critical choice. Either you can lead through the disappointment, or blame circumstances and events. “The economy wasn’t right. IT wasn’t prepared. We weren’t thorough enough.” Point here. Blame there.

And all the while your team is watching.

5 Ways to Lead Through a Setback

Realize It’s Temporary

Remind yourself and your team the situation is temporary, not an end. You will have many more opportunities.

It’s Not About You

Remember it’s not about you. Figure out how to help your people win, it’s about them.

Did You Do Your Best?

Make sure your people are thinking about getting better.  Don’t allow “victim thinking”.  Winning doesn’t always mean having the most points on the scoreboard. Did the team do their best? What can you do better to improve the product or service? How can you create a wow experience the next time?

What Can You Learn

Drill down into what you could have done better. There is a lesson somewhere.  The key for a leader is to draw the lesson out and teach.  It may be a simple lesson. Something quick the team can capitalize on. It may be complicated and you need to simplify it. Either way, it’s no different than a loss in athletics, what did you learn that will help you the next game.

Have a DVR Mentality

Replay the things you did well and not so well. What could you do differently? Just like an athlete uses video to get better, replay what happened, and learn from it. Become better than you were yesterday.

Losses and setbacks will happen. Be a teacher and coach. Lead your people through the tough time.

And above all, remember that like a child watching his parents, your people are watching how you respond and how you handle the situation.  It’s not always about the most points on the scoreboard. How have you defined success?

Photograph by Zach Sanford

Dedicated leader and motivator with over 18 years of experience in the transportation industry. Published writer with a widely recognized leadership blog (www.johnbossong.com). Recognized as an outstanding thought leader, motivator, public speaker and teacher. My goal is to write relevant and practical content that will challenge and inspire you to maximize your positive influence on others in your professional and personal life.

  • TedCoine

    John, Let me preface this by saying I’m not surprised at all, as I’m (blessedly) quite familiar with the quality of your thought-leadership by now. So with that in mind…

    This is one outstanding piece of writing! As I reread it this morning, I kept thinking to myself, “Gotta copy that line and draw attention to it in the comments.” Then, two sentences later, “And this line, too!” and on and on, till I realized I’d basically have to do that to the whole piece.

    Every team experiences setbacks – and if you’re pushing the envelope as you should, taking bold (though small, survivable) gambles, you’ll experience many setbacks. The only questions questions are, 1. Will you get up and try again? and 2. What did you learn.

    Fail often. Fail small. And fail forward – which is to mean, learn from each small failure and never make the same mistake twice. That, in my experience, is the secret to success.

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  • Jim Morris

    Nice piece, especially the reference to the DVR mentality. That’s a tough one for many leaders in the US who have learned to choose action over reflection and who tend to be very future focused and sometimes almost unwilling to consider anything from the past. These tendencies are connected to the dominant, white male culture of the US – not that its bad, and not that it’s because of white men, but there is no doubt that, unlike some other cultures who have more tolerance for reflectio and considering the past, we just don’t. Leaders are learning to overcome their conditioning and pieces like this heklp make that happen.


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