If you’ve been around the business world long enough and have achieved a high level of success and responsibility, there are a couple of things about you I believe I can say with certainty.
1) Unless you’re (as we used to say when I was growing up around Boston) “wicked lucky,” you’ll have experienced a deep professional disappointment or setback along the way.
2) It’s how you dealt with that disappointment or setback that shaped the rest of your career.
One underappreciated quality that helps guide you through difficult times isn’t a sexy one. It’s not as cool as charisma or confidence or command-a-room communication skills. But over the long run it may be even more important.
The higher you go in the business world, the more constituencies there are to please. And the more demanding they become. Boards, customers, employees, direct reports, markets, analysts, regulators, sales forces, distributors, communities, special interest groups… to name a few. Not to mention spouses, children, friends – all the components of life outside work. And many elements, including of course the broader economic and political landscape, are uncontrollable. A lot of things can go wrong. It’s a formidable list.
In short, at the highest and most precarious levels of management, the potential pitfalls are many. Who hasn’t endured one or more of the following: A lost job? A major professional setback? A multimillion (or -billion) dollar project gone badly awry on your watch? A bad quarter? A bad year? The challenges of balancing global travel with needs on the home front? Hurtful personal conflicts? The pain of having to let go people you care deeply about?
It’s easy to be on top of your game when everything’s going well. Not so easy when it’s not. Disappointments can easily, and understandably, derail you.
Which is why resilience – the not-so-simple act of picking yourself up, pulling yourself together, and moving constructively forward when you least feel like it… rather than giving in to frustration, anger or sadness… is of inestimable value.
Having spent a bit of time myself becoming acquainted with professional disappointment over the years, and having watched more than a few friends and colleagues wrestle with it too, I can only say that how one responds to failure is more important than how one handles success.
There’s an instructive metaphor from the sports world.
I’ve heard it said that the most successful athletes are those who recover most quickly from disappointment.
Consider Michael Jordan. Being somewhat of a contrarian, I liked to watch him most when he was playing his worst. He’d miss 10 jump shots in a row and his expression wouldn’t change and he wouldn’t hesitate one fraction of a nanosenond to take the 11th. Now it’s true there’s only one Michael Jordan. And no matter how great a business person you are or athlete you were, you’ll never have his jump shot.
But you can have his resilience, his attitude to adversity.
This article first appeared at Forbes.com.
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