by John Baldoni

Strength of Character Says a Lot About Your Leadership

Oct 03, 20066 mins
CareersIT Leadership

Your strength of character in the face of adversity says a lot about you as a leader. Turning a defeat into a positive experience says even more.

The pain was evident. With every shot he took, every stride across the tennis court, and even as he stood still, he appeared to be laboring in distress. Yet he persevered. After all, he was Andre Agassi, one of the true greats of the modern tennis game. Mercifully, the match–his last at the U.S. Open for his career–ended after the fourth round. Exhausted and in pain, Agassi strode to his chair and slumped over, holding his head in his hands, sobbing. The crowd was on its feet cheering wildly. Regaining his composure, Agassi waved to the crowd, and moments later after his opponent had addressed the crowd, Agassi took to center court and delivered a lesson for all athletes to remember. “The scoreboard says I lost today, but what the scoreboard doesn’t say is what I have found,” Agassi said to the crowd. “Over the last 21 years, I have found loyalty. … I have found inspiration. … You have given me your shoulders to stand on to reach for my dreams, dreams I never could have reached without you.” With that, he blew kisses to the crowd, as is his trademark style, and exited.

A loss is not the same as a defeat

“It hurts to lose” is a cliche and watching Agassi, the pain was evident in his hampered gait, hunched back and tear-streaked face. But Agassi did not lose in a metaphorical sense, any more than any real competitor ever does. He won the hearts of his fans and his competitors. Agassi said later that his tennis rivals stood and applauded him when he entered the locker room after his final match. That is recognition that Agassi is a genuine winner, more than his eight Grand Slam titles. But for the general public, Agassi’s biggest win might have been in the court of public opinion. He taught us how to lose with dignity, grace and honor.

Every leader should know how to lose. Failure is not something they teach you in school; it is something life teaches you. You may experience it on the playground when you get knocked down. Failure may hit you in the form of a failed examination, or a rejection from a university. It strikes us on the job all the time. We may not get the promotion we think we’ve earned; or the initiative we are working on, slaving over for months, turns to dust. Failure is part of life. Coping with it is critical to personal development. Here are some suggestions:

Avoid personalizing defeat. Your project failed. Your team disbanded. Your career is in jeopardy. Not so fast. Points one and two may be true, but only if you accept defeat and internalize it as a personal failing will you be defeated. In this instance, managers can take heart from actors auditioning for a part. Hundreds try out; only a couple are chosen. Is everyone who trod the boards and was not selected a loser? Hardly. What if the director were looking for a leading man in his 20s, and you are in your late 40s? Or what if you are a teenager trying out for the part of a grand dame? You have to be realistic; you must fit the part. The same applies to management. You must accept that the project did not meet expectations and your leadership was lacking, but you the person are not a “loser.” You and your team did not make the grade. What you do next defines your leadership.

Analyze what went wrong. You have to distance yourself from what happened by looking at the facts. The objective may have been too grand, the resources too meager and the time line unrealistic. That’s step one. Step two calls for self criticism. Did you do what you could to lead effectively? Did you set the right course? Did you delegate, supervise and recognize? Perhaps you were lacking in vision as well as execution. That’s on you, yes; but admit it and move forward. Self analysis that leads to self awareness is required. Self analysis that leads to self pity is to be loathed. Take an active role in your self discovery process. Write down what you would do differently the next time.

Renew yourself. Sometimes it is good to recall the words of a man who knew a thing or two about defeat, Richard Nixon, who said, “A man is not finished when he’s defeated; he’s finished when he quits.” OK, so things did not work out as well as you expected. Your next step reveals your character. Admitting defeat and acknowledging circumstance and responsibility lay the foundation for moving forward. Choose your next objective, or ready yourself for the next effort. Study your mistakes. Consider your options. In time, you will get your energy back and be ready for the struggle ahead. Otherwise, you need to get out of the game for a while, or do something entirely different. Perhaps your defeat taught you that your career path lies elsewhere. Act on that conclusion. It, too, is a form of renewal.

Fighting back

No one wants failure, and in fact, a desire for failure may indicate that leadership is not your forte. Leaders must meet adversity head on. Adversity may be in the guise of a competitor who stalks your every move. Or it may take the shape of a ruthless boss who hoards all ideas and credit for himself. Or adversity may be prolonged–the hardships you face in the workplace working with people who are uninspired, unmotivated and unenthused about anything except leaving early. To accept defeat from such folks is not a strength, but exactly the opposite. It is giving in to the obvious. Pushing back against the forces of adversity is essential.

Yet when the odds are not with you, and the force is too great, it is wise to step back. Picking your battles is essential. Agassi for his part is finished as a first rate competitive tennis player, but he is far from finished as a father, husband and philanthropist. He and his wife, Steffi Graf (herself an 11 time Grand Slam champion), have created a foundation and an academy in Las Vegas for underprivileged children. They don’t just raise money; they invest their time. Agassi may never again compete on the hard court, but he is competing in the greater pursuit of giving back to others. There is nobility in that action, from which all of us can draw strength.

John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as non-profits including the University of Michigan. He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker as well as the author of six books on leadership; the latest is How Great Leaders Get Great Results (McGraw-Hill). Readers are welcome to visit his leadership resource website at