ATD Blog

5 Leadership Lessons From Major Career Setbacks

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Let’s face it, being a leader is difficult. Every day a new challenge emerges that prompts us to have to make decisions for ourselves, our employees, and our company. And sometimes we make mistakes that can even lead to a setback in our career. Failure isn’t only experienced by top leadership figures such as Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, but by leaders across the globe.  

Over the past two decades I have worked with thousands of leaders, all of whom have taught me critical lessons about how to overcome career setbacks. Here are five to keep in mind. 

Stay Present 

Instead of avoiding the feelings that will surface from failing, embrace them. There is something to learn from feeling of anger, embarrassment, or frustration. Ask yourself, “What information is this feeling trying to give me?” and “What is the lesson this feeling is trying to teach me?” For example, if you are feeling angry. What’s causing the anger? Is it something you could have prevented? Don’t miss critical information because you are trying to hide. Put your feelings to work for you! 

Earn Your Hard-Knocks Degree 

Imagine you took a gruelingly difficult course. You knew you wouldn’t get an “A”, but you pushed through anyway, hoping you could at least pass the class. The lessons you learned from the experience turned out to be invaluable. And while you wouldn’t repeat the experience, you grew as a result.  


Now, with your career setback fresh in mind, document all the lessons you have learned so you can refer to them when you are facing a similar challenge. Don’t be a repeat offender.  

Broaden Your View of Courage 

Despite strong-held beliefs, courage is not about being fearless; rather it’s about being fearful. The simplest definition of courage is “acting despite being afraid.” Doing something you’re afraid pushes your level of discomfort. This can be related to exercise, which pulls, tears, and makes your muscles feel uncomfortable. But after you have had some time to recover, your muscles become stronger and ready to handle greater challenges. It’s the same with your psyche: Contending with your fears helps you get stronger, make progress, and evolve.  


Focus on the Long Game 

Reframe the way you view a setback. Careers are built over time. Setbacks are normal, natural, and even necessary for your development. Remind yourself that the pain and embarrassment will go away and the lessons learned will last. Focus on your long-term career journey, not the speedbump of the moment. Be Good to Yourself If you want to be a good leader, be good to yourself. Take the time to have fun, learn something new, and spend time with loved ones. Revive and recharge so you can be your best self. Treating yourself well is the first sign of self-respect. Be faithful to yourself. Personal fidelity matters! 

Sure, a career setback can sting. But recovering from a setback is not only possible, but can teach you valuable lessons in the process. Just make sure to use the experience to your advantage so you end up becoming the best leader you know yourself to be. 

Want to learn more about being a stronger, more courageous, and more effective leader? Check out my book Leaders Open Doors, 2nd Edition, which is now available in paperback!

About the Author

Bill Treasurer is founder of Giant Leap Consulting, Inc., a courage-building consulting firm that designs, develops, and delivers comprehensive leadership programs. Bill is the author of six books, including Courage Goes to Work and Leadership Two Words at a Time. For nearly three decades Bill has worked with thousands of leaders across the globe, from such renowned organizations as NASA, UBS Bank, Saks Fifth Avenue, eBay, Lenovo, the Social Security Administration, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. He currently serves on the board of ISA, an association of learning providers and recently received their Outstanding Contribution award. Learn more at

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