Thoughts on Leadership: Setbacks and Success

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels found me at home, starting off Monday with a Berkshire Hathaway Energy meeting then my typical Monday WIG calls. On Tuesday, I attended the HomeServices of America monthly CEO leadership meeting and on Wednesday through tomorrow, I hosted (and will continue to host) nine Q1 company reviews with CEOs and CFOs.

Speaking with companies about their progress made me think about success and setbacks, and whether the two are really all that different. In theory, success is what we’re striving for but the relationship between success and a setback is not dichotomous; setbacks are just opportunities to refocus our efforts on our way to success.

Let’s examine famous examples from history. In every one of the below true tales, leaders experienced a major setback that eventually led to a major breakthrough and ultimately, extraordinary success.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison once famously said, “I didn’t fail the test. I just found 100 ways to do it wrong.” Between 1878 and 1880, Edison and his researchers tested approximately 3,000 designs for a light bulb before eventually filing a patent in November of 1879 for an electric lamp that used “a carbon filament or strip coiled and connected … to platina contact wires.” Still, he hadn’t reached the light at the end of the tunnel. A few months after the patent was filed, his team discovered that carbonized bamboo filament could last more than 1,200 hours. That discovery sparked the beginning of commercially manufactured light bulbs and the world was brighter than it had ever been before.

Anna Wintour

One of the most famous names in fashion, Anna Wintour’s story began with failure. She started her professional life as a junior fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, where a more senior editor thought her photoshoots were too “edgy” and she was let go after just nine months working at the publication. “I recommend that you all get fired,” Wintour explained during a speech to fashion students. Wintour next became a fashion editor at Viva and in 1988, was named editor-in-chief of Vogue.

Mark Cuban

In the early years of his career, the “Shark Tank” billionaire worked in PC software sales. Several months into the job, an opportunity presented itself for Cuban to make a $15,000 sale, if only his boss signed off on the deal. His boss refused to sign off on it, but Cuban went ahead with the deal anyway and after returning to the office with the $15,000 check in hand, he was immediately fired. “Being fired from that job was the determining factor in my business life,” Cuban said—and that was the start of his now-famous entrepreneurial career.

Vera Wang

Worth an estimated $650 million, fashion designer Vera Wang did not start her professional life on the best foot. The onetime figure skater, who began skating at age eight and competed in the 1968 U.S. National Championships, was crushed when that same year she learned she didn’t qualify for the Olympic team. “I was devastated,” she said, in an interview with “I had a nervous breakdown and ended up doing a semester in Paris,” she explained. While in Paris, she fell in love with fashion, and that love would lead her to an incredible career designing wedding dresses. She even designed figure skating outfits for Olympic figure skaters, making her entire journey come full circle.

So, what’s the message? Let’s take a cue from my own story. When they closed down the golf course I worked at— Cherry Chase Golf Course—a developer bought it, and I got my real estate license in order to sell the new homes that would be developed on the land. However, I experienced my own personal failure when they didn’t give me the job. Undeterred, I decided to go into real estate on my own and for the first three months, I didn’t sell a single house and had a $1 bill in my pocket. With months of no deals, I started looking for anything I could do besides real estate, because I thought the profession was just not for me. Eventually, I got a sale and my self-image changed. As a sales professional, how you perform is how you see yourself; it’s why you have to work harder on yourself than you do on your job. When I finally sold my first house, I went on to sell 52 more homes over the next 12 months. One thing that kept me going was to the set of affirmations I learned in that first year of my career from my very first sales trainer, Tommy Hopkins. Here are a few:

  • I am not judged by the number of times I fail, but by the number of times I succeed and the number of times I succeed is in direct proportion to the number of times I can fail and keep trying.
  • I never take rejection personally. I am first and foremost in the people business. I realize that they can only reject my proposal, not me. I keep on keepin’ on.
  • I never see failure as failure but only as a game I must play and win.
  • I never see failure as failure but only as a learning experience.
  • I never see failure as failure but only as an opportunity to perfect my techniques and practice my presentation.

At the end of the day, success and setbacks are one and the same. To accomplish your goals, you must fail, otherwise how can you know what it even means to succeed?

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