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Overcoming Career Setbacks: How Adversity Can Strengthen Your Leadership Skills and Advance Your Career


Failure is a natural and inevitable part of pursuing any ambitious career goals. No matter how talented or devoted a professional may be, setbacks and disappointments are unavoidable at some point. While the sting of failure is difficult to overcome in the moment, research shows that reflecting on career setbacks with the right perspective can yield surprisingly positive outcomes. Leaders who learn from mistakes and hardships often emerge stronger and more successful as a result.


Today we will explore how setbacks can actually boost your career by strengthening crucial leadership skills and fueling personal growth.


Research Foundation: Setbacks Build Crucial "Resilience Skills"


Psychological research has found that experiencing and coping with career setbacks builds what scientists call "resilience skills" - the ability to overcome challenges, adapt to change, learn from mistakes, and continually improve (Bonanno, 2004; Southwick et al., 2014). These are crucial competencies for sustaining long-term success in any leadership role. While facing failure is difficult, leaders who develop resilience through past hardships gain an advantage. They become better problem-solvers, more flexible thinkers, and stronger performers over the long run.


Application: Resilience Skills Fuel Comebacks


Consider examples of leaders who rebounded from prominent career setbacks by drawing on their developed resilience skills. Well-known NFL coach Bill Belichick was fired from his first head coaching job with the Cleveland Browns, but went on to become the winningest coach in NFL history with the New England Patriots by learning from mistakes. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz struggled with his first business before successfully relaunching Starbucks and building it into a global brand. Resilience allowed both to analyze prior weaknesses, adapt, and achieve unprecedented later success. Their setbacks ultimately served as launching points for even greater leadership achievements by strengthening crucial lifelong skills.


Industry Example: Turning Failure Into Future Opportunity


A real estate developer suffered a major career setback when a high-profile new project fell through, resulting in substantial lost time and money. However, through reflecting on what went wrong, the developer identified underlying issues with the project's market analysis and design plan. This insight allowed them to avoid similar mistakes on future ventures. They went on to successfully complete several larger and more profitable developments by applying resilience skills gained from the initial failure. The setback, while painful, ultimately enhanced the developer's leadership capabilities and provided future career opportunities that may not have otherwise existed.


Failures Yield Important Lessons


Studies show that career setbacks present crucial "learning opportunities" that help professionals strengthen their knowledge and improve future performance (Ellis et al., 2014; Van de Walle, 2018). While failure is never the goal, the process of overcoming obstacles and reflecting on what went wrong yields valuable lessons that shape more effective leadership. Viewing setbacks through a "learning lens" rather than only focusing on associated frustrations can foster important personal and professional growth.


Application: Learning From Early Career Mistakes


It is common for young professionals just starting their careers to encounter minor setbacks as they adjust to new responsibilities and workplace dynamics. However, leaders who view these inevitable early bumps in the road as learning experiences gain lifelong advantages. For example, a new manager who botched an important project but took time to understand what led to issues will be far better equipped to successfully lead future initiatives. Viewing short-term setbacks as chances to expand one's skills and knowledge readies professionals for stronger long-term performance.


Industry Example: Pivoting a Failing Startup Into Future Success


Two entrepreneurs struggled with customer adoption and monetization strategies for their first startup company. Recognizing issues as learning opportunities, they took time to research competitors, survey target users, and refine their value proposition based on mistakes. This led them to pivot the failing startup into a new concept that found product-market fit and grew into a successful multimillion-dollar business. Without viewing early setbacks as chances to expand their knowledge, the entrepreneurs may have quit instead of discovering an approach with mass appeal.


Necessity Breeds Innovation


Research underscores how facing challenges often sparks highly creative problem-solving and development of new strategies (Amabile & Khaire, 2008; DiTomaso & Hooijberg, 1996). The pressure that comes from career setbacks and unsolved problems pushes leaders to think beyond standard paradigms. This innovative "necessity breeding" can yield solutions that position organizations or individuals for fresh success. While setbacks are uncomfortable, they may inadvertently stimulate the creative breakthroughs that drive future career advancement or competitive advantages.


Application: Creative Solutions From Past Struggles


Leaders who have navigated prior setbacks understand the value of innovative thinking under pressure. The current CEO of a major aerospace company faced serious financial issues early in their career when a key client left. Forced to think outside the box, they landed another major client by creatively adapting existing tech to a new industry—an approach now fundamental to company success. Past difficulties spurred an entrepreneurial mindset still driving new opportunities today. Experience overcoming previous hurdles positions professionals to tackle future problems creatively.


Industry Example: Turning a Lawsuit Into Market-Leading Innovation


A tech startup faced a potentially disastrous patent infringement lawsuit that threatened to bankrupt the young company. To survive, developers were forced to brainstorm completely new approaches. This led to breakthrough innovations nowhere close to the company's original concept but fulfilling massive unmet needs. The innovative solutions rendered the lawsuit irrelevant and ultimately positioned the startup, now a multibillion-dollar corporation, as the market leader. Without the "spark of necessity" from legal pressures, the company may never have achieved its current scale and competitive advantages.


Setbacks Strengthen Professional Identity


Research shows that overcoming obstacles throughout one's career fosters the development of a strong professional identity and sense of self-efficacy (Ibarra, 2015; Reichborn-Kjennerud & Svare, 2014). Facing and conquering challenges shapes a leader's view of themselves as capable of achieving goals regardless of hardships. This hardened identity and self-belief generated from past successes and failures provides psychological fuel to maintain career momentum despite new obstacles. Leaders who have proven their ability to bounce back from adversity become convinced of their capacity for lifelong learning and growth.


Application: Prior Struggles Inspire Future Drive


A sales executive who battled career setbacks like multiple rejected proposals and lost deals shares that reflecting on prior comebacks continues sparking motivation, even decades later. Her proven ability to rebound from temporary setbacks instilled deep confidence that she could handle and learn from any new issues. This belief in her capacity to adapt and improve fuels the passion sustaining a long, highly successful career trajectory over time. Experience overcoming past challenges nourishes an internal drive powering continued growth.


Industry Example: Resilience Drives a Lawyer's Rise to Partnership


Early in their career, an associate lawyer at a major firm faced stern criticism on an important case and seemed unlikely to make partner. However, reflecting on resilience built from college setbacks, they channeled frustration into self-improvement. Tireless practice strengthened argument skills, securing several major wins that boosted the firm's reputation. Newfound confidence and grit led to partnership recognition—a success directly linked to the lawyer's ability to maintain momentum despite initial career difficulties.


Conclusion


While facing career setbacks is never pleasant in the moment, research and examples across industries demonstrate how overcoming adversity can significantly boost long-term professional success and leadership development. Experiencing temporary failures fosters crucial resilience skills, sparks important learning opportunities, incentivizes innovative problem-solving, and cultivates the self-efficacy needed to sustain career momentum over decades. Leaders who practice reflecting on past difficulties with a growth mindset position themselves to continually improve expertise, achieve greater accomplishments, and advance to higher levels of responsibility throughout their careers. Rather than dwelling on short-term frustrations, professionals can gain career advantages by viewing setbacks through a lens of future opportunity for personal and professional strengthening. With resilience forged from past hurdles, leaders emerge well equipped to handle new challenges and propel their careers forward for decades to come.

References


  • Amabile, T. M., & Khaire, M. (2008). Creativity and the role of the leader.Harvard Business Review, 86(10), 100-109.

  • Bonanno, G. A. (2004). Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events? American Psychologist, 59(1), 20–28. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.59.1.20

  • DiTomaso, N., & Hooijberg, R. (1996). Diversity and the demands of leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 7(2), 163-187.

  • Ellis, S., Carette, B., Anseel, F., & Lievens, F. (2014). Systematic reflection: Implications for learning from failures and successes. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(1), 67-72.

  • Ibarra, H. (2015). The authenticity paradox. Harvard Business Review, 93(1), 53-59.

  • Reichborn-Kjennerud, K., & Svare, H. (2014). Entrepreneurial growth strategies: The role of network-based learning. Journal of Small Business and Enterprise Development, 21(2), 255-271.

  • Southwick, S. M., Bonanno, G. A., Masten, A. S., Panter-Brick, C., & Yehuda, R. (2014). Resilience definitions, theory, and challenges: Interdisciplinary perspectives. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 5(1), 25338. https://doi.org/10.3402/ejpt.v5.25338

  • Van de Walle, S. (2018). Lessons from failure: How accidents build resilience. Harvard Business Review, 2(1), 1-6.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.


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