Four Things to do When Leading but Losing


Four Things to do When Leading but Losing


In March Madness, 67* teams get Mad and one gets crowned the champ.  Lousy odds!  It gets worse, though:  in every single opening round game where a #1 seed has faced a #16 seed team, the 16 seed has lost (108 in a row).

Sometimes you’re just not going to win.  We’ve had some family experience with this; perhaps you have, too.  Last week, my son’s JV lacrosse team lost 17-0 and then 14-2; they may well not win a game all season.  When my wife was governor, despite her herculean efforts, the Michigan “team” had no chance to lead the nation in employment.   My daughters who have been full-time student advocates were not going to bring all their freshmen – who were at an average 3rd-grade reading level – up to a 10th grade level.   Finally, to offer a leading-at-home example:  For years, one of my daughters and I seemed utterly incapable of avoiding intense arguments with each other; the victory of peace seemed completely unattainable to us.

What do leaders do in times like this?  Here are four tried-and- true suggestions:

1.  Don’t: Stare at the scoreboard.  It will get you down.  Besides, you can only score on the field.  Forget about the last goal you’ve given up.  Do: Continually return to the present moment – the only place anything can really change.

2.  Don’t set impossibly high standards.  Instead, Do:  Set specific reachable, interim targets that will allow you to (a) stay focused on achieving, and (b) generate some momentum.  Then celebrate the specific achievements.

3.  Don’t:  Collapse into scapegoating, which unfortunately is so easy to do.  But, Do:  Clarify intrinsic values you will pursue, like loyalty or unity.  It’s a success – indeed an incredible achievement – when a young team stays unified under difficult circumstances.

4.  There’s an especially important challenge for a leader when they know at some point they won’t hit their goals, might have to close a business, or finish last or far from the top.  The head leader has to lead herself!  She must do the two things all great leaders do:  Set a vision and generate energy, and she must begin with herself.  Because if you quit – whether you admit it or not – they’ll know, and they’ll be likely to quit as well.  If you’re leading a team through tough times, know that doing that with character is a much greater achievement – and probably a bigger set of life lessons for you and the team – than leading when everything’s going your way.

When things seem worst,

Lead with your best self,


*67 is a recent innovation this past year.