Turning Your Obstacles, Problems, and Even Failures into Leadership Opportunities

No matter how well you plan and train and prepare, sooner or later something will happen with the potential to do serious damage to your organization or team—the business equivalent to a tornado. It can take many forms: a sudden drastic change in your industry or regulatory environment, a disrupted supply chain, a major client that goes into bankruptcy, a degree of involvement in a newsworthy scandal, or throwing all your resources into pursuing a “can’t-miss” opportunity that can—and does, miss.

Turning Your Obstacles, Problems, and Even Failures into Leadership Opportunities

Whatever the situation, you find yourself staring at uncertainty and problems. There may be no good way to spin the situation, but there is a simple question you can use to convert it into a leadership opportunity: What can we learn from this?

Whether you ask it of yourself or of your team, that simple question turns any problem or obstacle into a springboard for learning and growth. It focuses attention on solutions rather than placing blame, and fosters positivity rather than gloom.

So what does it look like in action? Here are some of the steps you can take to keep your team and organization focused on learning when times turn tough:

Spend some time studying what happened.

Of course, your initial effort will be focused on stopping the bleeding. Once that phase is over, it’s human nature to move on as quickly as possible and start building something new—but it’s worth investing the time to dig deep while events are still fairly fresh. This doesn’t mean finding fault with individuals but looking at the big picture and asking where the system might have failed. Is there a clue that was missed? An early indicator that could have flagged preventive action? What were the underlying causes? How could a similar event be prevented in the future?

Encourage communication and ideas.

Your perspective, however knowledgeable, is necessarily limited. Bring as many people to the table as possible to talk about what happened, what learning and positive change can come from the situation along with any damage, and how best to incorporate that learning and change throughout the team or organization. The more perspectives you can hear from, the more accurate and valuable the information will be.

Look critically at responses as well as events.

A sudden crisis offers a real-world test of your preparedness. Along with root causes of the event and prevention, don’t forget to examine things like crisis communication and emergency processes. Identify what worked and what needs adjustment, and then make any policy changes you need.

Disseminate what you learn as widely as you can.

Once you have some answers, make sure that everyone at every level has access to the information. If appropriate within your industry and competitive environment, you may even want to develop a presentation for a professional conference to talk about some element of what happened and what you learned from it.


No one chooses a crisis, but when one hits, it’s worth remembering that even the worst situation carries the seed of some positive outcomes. It can bring an opportunity to model lifelong learning and show its value as an alternative to the too-frequent “point and blame” response to issues. Your leadership and your team get a chance to grow in significant—and highly visible—ways.

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