What Drives You Through Setbacks — An Olympic Example


The Greeks were famous for their mythology and for their sense of drama (humor, irony, and tragedy).  Their Olympics as well as ours shine with such myth and drama.  Drama, too, character-izes our own lives.

I point to one Olympic story today, because it offers a model for our everyday leadership dramas.  The model in this case shines through the behavior of Jordyn Wieber, the seventeen year old reigning women’s gymnastics champion from the great state of Michigan.  You can see the essentials at the NBC website (“Jordan Wieber misses out on all-around”) but let me recount the essence here:  Jordyn has been dominating competitions since 2008 and came in as the favorite.  Known for her incredible consistency and focus, she was off her game at times in the qualifying rounds.  Twenty-four women qualified for the finals, and she was 4th among them; however, only the two highest scoring gymnasts from each country are allowed into the final, and she was third among her American teammates.

So, imagine you really wanted something at work: a promotion, a sale, a different job, etc.  Imagine it was really important, as this final was to Jordyn:

“She has trained her entire life for this day, and to have it turn out anything less than she deserves is going to be devastating” her coach said in a statement afterward.  Martha Karolyi the women’s team coordinator said: “When this kind of disappointment happens, you can’t say anything. It’s almost like when someone passes away. What to say? Anything you say, the situation is the same.”

Having suffered a similar setback, what would you do the next day?

The greatest leaders we know were driven in their overall work — and in their times of greatest challenge — by faith.  For some their faith was religious.  Others described their faithas spiritual.  I call it “faith” because this mindset runs heavily against the grain of conventional wisdom.   Conventional wisdom says two things:  (1) Winning is what matters.  Defeat is defeat. And if you’ve tried so hard and lost, you deserve to feel awful (maybe for the rest of your life).  (2) Take care of your own self.

Yet in the faith I’m talking about leaders show up with two essential qualities:

First, the results of the past don’t matter.  They put themselves whole-heartedly into the new moment they’re in.  Indeed, it’s this capacity and commitment to keep working, playing, fighting – even when they’ve lost badly — that doesn’t just prove, but builds and solidifies their character.  Second, this faith clearly says: It’s just not all about me.  In the times that are hardest, these great leaders lead for others.

This young 17 year old Olympian couldn’t face the cameras at first, but when she came back to the gym she fought the tears and talked about how happy she was for her teammates.  2 days later she competed in the floor exercises, helping the US women’s team win the all-around team competition.

Although winning is surely glorious, I suspect that Jordyn Wieber’s ability to stand before the camera, stand behind her teammates and compete in the final (with what appears now to be a stress fracture in her leg) will serve to develop the kind of character that will make her a great leader the rest of her life.

What do you think of this model?  And how are you bouncing back from your setbacks?  As you strive to

Lead with your best self,


  • Jordyn came back and performed admirably, demonstrating strength of character. I disagree with your statement about “winning is what matters.” This leads to ruthless, cutthroat behavior. Whatever happened to the old quote about how you play the game is what matters. Jordyn demonstrated how it should be played.

  • Our children — all now adults with children of their own — would tell you we wished for them the very best in life, which meant we wished for them significant challenges to overcome, and significant setbacks to bounce back from. These are the times that make us what we are. They are the most satisfying moments in our lives, even though — or perhaps because — they are so hard and challenging to go through.

    Jordyn Weiber is a great example.

  • Great point and nice comment from Bob. We all get to decide for ourselves what success is. Sometimes choosing a broader matrix can disqualify our coming in first and winning according to narrower measures. Sometimes our greatest losses are where we show what winners we really are.

  • This is a hard one. But, I think true leaders don’t see failure the same way other people do. When they see that something does not work (others would call it loosing) they just go on to compete smarter the next time.

  • You’re right about faith helping us through. This scripture from Romans 5 always comes to mind when I or someone I love faces setbacks:

    “Not only so, but we[c] also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

    And also this one with it from Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

  • Experiencing a setback is a time for reflection. Whether in sports or life’s personal matters it takes a great deal of composure to move on. Leaders learn from defeat and I think encountering that moment in life enables someone to either stagnate or evaluate the reasons for his or her shortcoming. A defeat or failure to achieve an objective does not mean that leadership charactersics and other qualities associated with being a leader are lost or surrendered.
    Certainly faith, spiritually, and in yourself can be a tranquilizing period of meditation that energizes a person’s confidence which can direct the individual to travel another avenue that will take him or her to the depot of success and satisfaction that maintains or elevates their ability to lead.

  • I recommend Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong. In it the author, Alina Tugend, argues that praise does not build self-esteem, resilience does. Self-esteem comes from failing, persevering, trying again and eventually succeeding. If a leader is not willing to tolerate a follower’s failure, the leader is teaching those who follow to be timid, unadventurous and play it safe. That’s hardly a recipe for team success.

  • Thanks for recommending “Better by Mistake”, Scott. I’m feeling great about myself now! 😉 Seriously, it looks like a great read.

    I’ve been reflecting on this topic since I posted earlier and am thinking that real win in striving to win, to be the best, etc., is in all the learning and smaller wins you experience en-route. To get the most out of the journey, being serious about winning matters. It’s the magnet that draws out our best efforts that develop our abilities. It’s what keeps our efforts focused, not random. And if we win, hooray. If we don’t, we haven’t lost any of the gains that came from our endeavor.

    It may sound unrelated, but I’m a student of Mike Rother’s “Toyota Kata”. He sees the vision as essential to the continuous improvement effort. It guides on-the-ground daily choices. Whether you hit or exceed or fall short of the target, the earnest attempt to reach it will have created far more improvement, growth and development than a less focused or problem-solving approach would. And it is a leader’s job to create a strong vision and make sure organizational efforts are aligned with it.

    So leaders take winning very seriously, but also don’t miss the important, smaller, broader and unanticipated wins of the journey.

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