How Great Leaders Handle Disappointment    

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In the movie McFarland USA there’s a pivotal scene where the McFarland High School cross-country team, when faced with hills for the first time, performs poorly.  On the bus ride home, it’s clear all the kids on the team are totally dejected.  The coach is obviously disappointed too.  

Before they pull into McFarland the coach pulls the bus over so he can talk to them about their performance.  He doesn’t criticize them or yell at them; instead he tells the team it was his fault for not preparing them properly.


This is classic leadership in action.  The coach hid his disappointment, looked inward, realized there was a training deficiency and ultimately shouldered the blame.  In doing so he gained respect and credibility with his players, but more importantly, he also earned their trust.  


What if he had instead said, “Hey team, I’m really disappointed in you”? 


Strong leaders hide their disappointment.


“I’m disappointed in you.”  This is a phrase leaders should never use. 


It’s a powerful combination of words that hurt unnecessarily and also shames, humiliates and devastates self-esteem.  Once said, these are tough words to get back. 


Regretfully, I know I’ve made this mistake.  Here’s the thing, while I may not be able to recall the exact circumstances, I’m almost certain the individuals they were directed at do.  I wish I had had the strength to follow some of the advice below.


Great leaders understand nobody wants to let the boss down. 


They also know people don’t come to work looking for ways to screw up.  Do you remember Seinfeld’s George Castanza?  Maybe he did, but he was a TV character.  Most individuals want to perform well and feel like a valued member of the team.  Just about everybody’s self-identity is tied to what they do.  “What do you do?” is a standard question we ask when meeting someone for the first time.  Imagine having to answer that question with a silent voice in the back of your mind saying: “I’m a disappointment.”  We’d hate for one of our kids to ever think that, that’s why we use the term “I’m disappointed in you” very sparingly.  We should show the same consideration for those we lead.


Gifted leaders look inward first.


When things go wrong, gifted leaders do this first.  This isn’t self-doubt; it’s healthy reflection and a good sign of high emotional IQ.  They ask questions like: Were my directions clear?  Did everyone have what he or she needed?  They realize disappointment usually stems from a mismanagement of expectations and that correcting the gap between reality and expectation may alleviate the disappointment.   


They fix the problem.


Inspiring leaders know the majority of failures in life can be traced back to poor system design.  Isn’t the leader ultimately responsible for every system and procedure in the organization?  When mishaps do occur, inspiring leaders get together with everyone to conduct a hot wash, not to assign blame, but to conduct a review, to learn and to ultimately fix the problem.  This simple action also sends a powerful message and again is an excellent way to build credibility and trust.    


Just let it go.


How often have we been told this?  Just letting it go might be the hardest thing to do, but senior leaders in all organizations need to get to the fifth stage of grief (acceptance) quickly, especially with the minor stuff. Acceptance allows us to move on, and that’s what leaders need to do most; move the organization forward.


They have a confidant.


Don’t get me wrong, we all suffer from life’s disappointments and we can and should articulate those disappointments.  Just do it with someone else other than your employees.  Tell your spouse or a friend.  Sometimes when we do this, their response surprises us, doesn’t it?  Sometimes they say, “what were you thinking was going to happen?”   

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