Leadership Learned Over Time: Becoming Stronger From Failure

Post written by

Sarah Evans

Evans is CEO of Well Aware, a Toyota Mother of Invention, and member of the Truman National Security Project and Forbes Nonprofit Council.

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Leadership is a big word with broad meaning. Over the past 10 years of running companies, I’ve learned it means something a little different to each executive I meet. There are, though, some characteristics that I’ve worked to strengthen because they’ve been the most effective for me over time.

This theme is especially present for me this month, as we are bringing on a new executive director to take the operational reins of the nonprofit I started many moons ago. In my exercise in identifying someone who can meet (and crush) this challenge, I’ve done some deep thinking about what has worked for me and what has not.

For many professionals like myself, mistakes in leadership are, naturally, more valuable than the wins. Thinking through them can help us to consider how we can further improve.

Saying You’re Sorry

When I first began leading Well Aware, I was told I apologized too much. And, I did. So, then I stopped apologizing altogether, and that was even worse.

I know now that apologies are important and meaningful in my relationships with my team, and I’ve found a good balance of expressing gratitude and offering apology. If it seems that I’ve inconvenienced someone, I will usually thank them for their patience, understanding and acceptance. If I know I’ve made an error or caused a team member distress, I will say that I am sorry.

Distinguishing between these two expressions and practicing them regularly can empower your leadership without diminishing your authority or compassion for your team.

Being Vulnerable

I should admit that this is one I’m still working on and will likely still be working on for life. Vulnerability doesn’t come easily for me, and it’s taken me years to understand the importance of this in leadership.

As a matter of fact, I only accidentally discovered the effect of my own vulnerability with my team.

During an especially stressful time at work and at home, I sent a text message to a friend explaining that I didn’t feel that I had much energy and positivity left to give everyone. Except, I hadn’t sent it to my friend. I had accidentally sent it to my office team.

I didn’t realize it until each and every one of them started sending me private text messages offering support and similar feelings. Initially, I was embarrassed. But, later that evening, I felt supported. And the following day at work, we were all a little extra kind and nurturing with each other.

Leadership is incredibly lonely most of the time, and boundaries do have to exist to keep a growing company on track. Simply acknowledging the struggle and defeat sometimes, however, can help others understand your drive and vision, and it can act to further unify your team.

Change Management Versus Crisis Management

One of our leading team values, and a company characteristic we often tout, is our “change management” philosophy and focus. We do project work in rural parts of developing countries, and our path to completion of each and every water system is ever-changing. On top of that, the landscape of fundraising is rapidly evolving, and nonprofit work is often unpredictable.

While each organization’s challenges vary, it’s important to be able to navigate them without burning out your team and while remaining positive. To do so, your team needs to be flexible and understand the importance and power of a nimble approach. That has to be guided and reinforced by the leadership.

This has been a big learning opportunity for me, and I haven’t always been good at it. As a matter of fact, I used to be pretty bad at it. A trusted team member let me know a few years ago that she wasn’t sure when something was urgent or not because I communicated too many issues as “crises.” Of course, none of them were crises; I was just overly anxious about every little thing during a time of important growth for the company, and I was damaging the team culture and productivity in doing so.

Thanks to this great upward management I received, I shifted my behavior and have been honing my approach to changes, big and small, ever since. As a leader, I find that preaching change as an opportunity can help teams remain calm and optimistic when a pivot is necessary.

But Versus And

I think I picked this trick up on Reddit or somewhere similar, and when I read it and put it into practice, it changed how I communicate with my team and how my team responds to my feedback.

Whenever and wherever it’s possible, replace “but” with “and.” The word swap helps to redesign the sentence and message in a much more positive way. For example, where I might have once stated, “This proposal is a great start, but it needs more mission alignment to impress the donor,” I will now say, “This proposal is a great start, and you can add more mission alignment to impress the donor.”

Making this simple change reframes the message and tone for the person receiving the feedback, and the point is still made. I’ve found this so helpful in keeping conversations productive and team relationships strong.

Much Of Leadership Excellence Is Learned

Almost everything I have learned and written about has been navigated and resolved with the support and guidance of fierce leadership coaching, which I would recommend to others. A coach helps keep me accountable and on-mission, and I don’t have to be alone in my head with my wonders and worries in a role that is otherwise isolating.

There’s no one magic bullet for leadership excellence, but there’s one solid theme that’s worked for me: taking the ways I’ve managed poorly and turning those lessons into a springboard to be better. This requires only an open mind and commitment to self-awareness and improvement. The rest will follow.

Forbes Nonprofit Council is an invitation-only organization for chief executives in successful nonprofit organizations. Do I qualify?

Evans is CEO of Well Aware, a Toyota Mother of Invention, and member of the Truman National Security Project and Forbes Nonprofit Council....