How to Lose Like a Winner

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By John Baldoni

Standing before the microphone in the mansion that was his home, at least for a few more weeks, gave the world a peek into the man he would become. For the moment, he was a loser, at least in the electoral sense. After nearly a month of legal wrangling, Al Gore, speaking from the Number One Observatory Circle that serves as the vice president’s official residence, conceded defeat and wished the new president, George W. Bush, well. Then Gore disappeared from the national stage. Or so the world thought. In reality, he went back to a cause that had fired his juices for many years: global warming. He toured the country giving a PowerPoint presentation on the topic that he called An Inconvenient Truth. After some 2,000 deliveries, he turned the presentation into a movie that won an Academy Award in 2007. Concurrent with his speaking career, he became a successful businessman and even helped to start a television network. His net worth is estimated to be around $100 million. In 2007, he teamed with a venture capital firm that invests in eco-responsible businesses. Al Gore was back, but more important, his work mattered. His work on global warming earned him, and a collection of scientific experts, the 2007 Nobel Prize for Peace.

A Loss Is Not a Defeat

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 of 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 few are chosen. Is everyone who trod the boards and not selected a loser? Hardly. What if the director were looking for a leading man in his twenties, and you are in your late forties? 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. 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 timeline 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. Okay, so things did not work out as well as you expected. Your next step reveals your character. Recall the words of a man who knew a thing or two about losing, Richard Nixon, who said, “A man is not finished when he’s defeated; he’s finished when he quits.”Admitting defeat and acknowledging circumstance and responsibility lays 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 awhile, 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 to avoid risk of failure may indicate that you lack the inner fortitude to face 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. 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. Many entrepreneurs failed in their early attempts to launch a business. The learned ability to handle defeat drove them to press on. And so when they found new opportunities, they were better prepared to build a business. The light at the end of tunnel can sometimes be sunlight.

About the Author(s)

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership consultant, speaker, and author of seven books, including Great Communication Secrets of Great Leaders and Lead by Example: 50 Ways Great Leaders Inspire Results (AMACOM, 2008), from which this excerpt is taken. For more information visit