Want to Grow as a Leader? Then Deal With What Happens in the “Messy Middle”

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Oct 22, 2015

We’ve all made missteps in our careers. How we handle those setbacks and how quickly we bounce back from them can make a huge difference in our development as leaders.

As much as we’d like to bury our blunders, new research has discovered that leaders can become better and stronger by embracing and owning their mistakes.

According to Brené Brown, Ph.D., a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, a crucial opportunity exists in spending time with our failures. “When we deny our stories of failure, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write the ending,” she says.

In her new book, Rising Strong, she explains how it can transform the way we lead.

The messy middle

Brown gave a speech at Pixar Animation Studios, where she learned the middle of the script-writing process is the hardest part – it’s where the main character must face a tough journey to learn a lesson. That shaped her theory: You can’t skip the second act.

“People don’t recount the middle of the story often,” Brown says. “But it’s where everything important happens, and that messy middle is where leaders are born.”

If we can embrace and lean into our failures, we’ll gain confidence that we can conquer challenges and “rise strong.” Knowing that we can work through a problem lets us stick with it long enough to transform into a better leader than we were before the adversity.

The 3-steps for bouncing back from adversity

  1. Examine your emotions and actions — Recognize you’re having an emotional reaction and get curious as to why. Dig deep. Doing so keeps us from offloading our setbacks in a variety of unproductive ways – lashing out, dismissing them as if they don’t matter, numbing ourselves, keeping everything inside, or becoming immobilized by the mistake. Walking into our stories of failure can feel dangerous, but the process of regaining our footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values are forged.
  2. Confront the challenges that are holding you back — Failure is painful, and our celebration of redemption often skips over the real hurts that needed redemption in the first place. We can be guilty of gold-plating grit as we make failure seem fashionable without acknowledging the inherent desperation, shame, and dismay we felt initially. Being vulnerable here is an act of courage, rather than weakness. Acknowledge your genuine emotions and confront any assumptions you may have made. Decide what’s good about your reaction and what you want to change. Begin the process of ‘owning’ your setback story by reexamining the story and diving deeper to mine for truths and errors in your first telling of the tale. Wrestle with your story until you get to a place of truth that makes sense for you.
  3. Write an ending to the story that will transform how you face future obstacles — Use what you’ve discovered about yourself to write a new, better story, in order to live a more wholehearted life. Own your story, rather than minimizing, compartmentalizing, hiding or editing it. Owning your story also means you’re not defined by it or denying it, but intentionally choosing authenticity as the path forward.

You can rise stronger from your failures when you can find a way to transform how you’ll live and work as a result of the challenges you’ve faced.

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