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.

  • Yes, we learn from our failures not from our successes.

    Won’t it be great if every parent could say to their child, “Great Failure!”….when the child makes a mistake or fails to win some game. By recognizing the learning value of failure, we can continuously get better at playing the game.

  • Thanks Dan,
    Your article brought a rush of memories both from my career as a public health advocate in Michigan and as my two son’s soccer, basketball and baseball coach.
    Coaching baseball in the city leagues in Ann Arbor, i had the reputaion of taking kids on my teams that no one else wanted.
    I can still see the tears in one dad’s eyes when at the end of a horrible, for me, one win season after his son had got his one and only hit of the year, he thanked me for for my patience and perserverance as all he had wanted for his son is one successful at bat.
    I can’t tell you how that put things into perspective for me.
    It is the little victories we so often overlook that oftentimes mean the most.

  • Thanks Dan for this article! It was very inspirational and timely. I’m glad you addressed leading while losing! It seems like leaders only want to talk about winning when in reality, we win some and lose some!

  • Dan:

    Your essay put in words what I’ve been trying to do in politics and in my coaching for competitive speech. Thank you. Anytime we’re involved in zero sum situations (elections, games, debates), the question of how to compete against overwhelming odds is central. how do we act in hope? I find that I work to build those intrinsic, core values , to think strategically even at the time when I and my team are feeling so tactically hammered.

    So thanks.

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