Chris Lorence: Surviving a leadership crucible

By Chris Lorence, ICBA

Every leader has setbacks. Whether by professional misstep, unexpected market shift or tactical miscalculation, every leader will from time to time experience a period where they may feel punched in the gut. Everything is going along as planned and suddenly, seemingly without warning, you’re instead picking up pieces of what was your career—or worse, scrambling to control a situation that appears to have taken on a life of its own. What do you do when all that you’ve worked for is no longer your reality?

This seemingly disastrous shift can best be described as a “leadership crucible.” As a leader, the steps you take to recover can be one of the most important learning opportunities of your career.

A setback can all but consume your thinking and disrupt all areas of your life for a period of time. It’s human nature to get angry, blame others, seek sympathy from allies and even retreat in a fog of self-doubt. Whether leading a team, a division or an organization, leaders give a tremendous amount of themselves personally, so the failure feels personal and can take its toll.

Your leadership crucible, while difficult to experience, can be a crucial step in your development and can in many cases be a launching point for a renewed trajectory. While it’s important to allow for a period of grieving and to lick your wounds, it’s also important to begin a process of self-reflection and acceptance. Facing the reality of the situation from a perspective of “What is there to learn?” can often jumpstart the important steps needed to rebound and recover.

So, what can leaders who experience a leadership setback do to help them begin again? These four self-reflections require honesty, candor and vulnerability but open the door to developing new skills and strength.

  • Accountability: Being accountable isn’t about accepting fault or blaming yourself for what transpired. Instead, being accountable allows you to take responsibility for the factors you did have control over. Did you miss a blind spot because you were overly focused on success? Were you spread too thin? Did you not ask enough questions and instead rely on your gut? Did you overestimate your own capabilities or those of others on your team?
  • Acceptance: If you could do it over again, what would you do differently? What are the steps or decisions you made that led to the setback? Would you take a different approach or action knowing what you know now?
  • Action: What is your plan to reboot? While there may be a period of feeling helpless or a sense that you can’t recover, you can, as long as you have a plan. Is it time to change roles or jobs, or does this inspire you to learn new skills or start a new career altogether?
  • Amnesty: It’s important, after all the stress of a leadership crucible, that you give yourself a break. Being a leader isn’t easy, and even the most seasoned leader has setbacks. Forgiving yourself will begin not only renewal but a new perspective on the opportunity to grow.

Chris Lorence ( is ICBA group executive vice president–member engagement and strategy