The Art of the Setback

by Lisa Petrilli…

I experienced a setback in my life last week.

The nature of the setback is, in and of itself, irrelevant.  What was important and revealing to me was my knee-jerk reaction, the kind of reaction which did not serve me and, quite honestly, I had thought I was past…

1. I racked my brain to find something I had done to cause the setback (I was intent on laying blame somewhere within myself).

2. I wallowed in a state of fear that this setback, again – the likes of which I had thought I was past – would keep recurring.

3. I allowed myself to feel the discomfort of the setback as pain and guilt.

Yeah, I was more fun than a barrel of monkeys last Tuesday…

Fortunately, by that evening I had realigned with my vision of where I was headed in this journey we lovingly refer to as “life” – I had the picture of it firmly in my mind – and I felt reaffirmed and inspired from within to once again get back on the path to that vision.  It’s amazing how much lighter my inner inspiration made me feel – like the weight of the blame, fear and guilt had all been lifted!

I vowed to learn from the experience and not take the road of emotional wreckage the next time I experience a setback. (And they can’t really be denied in life, right? Sometimes they occur and simply cannot be explained.)

So, here’s the important question for all of us as leaders: when we experience a setback in our businesses what is our natural reaction to it – and is it the healthiest reaction for our company?

Are we the type of leader that, when our company, project or team experiences a setback:

  • automatically wants to place blame on someone, sometimes leading to rash decisions about that person’s career
  • makes poor, often risk-averse business decisions in regard to moving forward from a place of fear rather than strength and commitment
  • leaves a trail of emotional wreckage in our teams because of our reaction, which often leads our team members to feel guilt and silently place blame amongst themselves


Or, do we inspire and empower others during a setback – which, in reality, is not a failure but often a chance to reaffirm our commitment to the chosen path.  Unlike the leader above, do we:

  • take blame, fear and guilt out of the equation and look at the setback from a perspective of healthy reflection and understanding; from a place of confidence in our abilities and our own inner power 
  • use the opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to the organization’s/team’s vision – and to tweak or clarify it if necessary
  • demonstrate the trust we have in our teams by empowering them to determine the correct strategies to get back on track towards that vision, adjusting and re-focusing on key objectives in the process
  • leave our teams more energized from the experience because of the way we handled it and the way we showed respect for them


To be clear, I am not in any way saying that if members of the team are not doing their jobs – and that there was a clear and unacceptable reason for the setback – that there should not be consequences. There should be.

But, I have come to believe there is an art in responding to setbacks, and I believe that the art is much more complex, powerful and impactful than I ever realized. 

I have work to do in my personal life to act like the leader with “higher angels” when it comes to responding to my own setbacks.  I’m genuinely optimistic about the challenge.  But I like to think in the business world I am much more apt to respond like the second leader…

How about you – have you mastered the art of the setback?

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Photo is of Elisabet Ney’s marble sculpture of Lady Macbeth taken by cliff1066.


  1. Lisa,

    A true “learning” organization requires the second type of leader – one who truly believes that “there is no failure, only feedback. I try to start with the presupposition that people are doing their best and may only need different tools or another perspective to get the job done.
    Hans Hageman´s last blog post ..High School Football and Men

  2. H iLisa,

    It’s our attitude to the setback that’s the problem, not the event itself.

    I try to rise above minor setbacks, eg pc crashing, and see them as things of the day…

    whereas I stand back and look at the real big ones and see if there is some message in this for me, eg when I didnt get my green cart to the US, I felt upset at first but later knew I had to complete things in London first.

    Not sure if that makes sense, hope so.


    • Ivan,

      What a truism. :) Yes, I agree that sometimes the larger setbacks have a message for us. I’m so glad that you try to see yours clearly – I know that’s what it took for me as well. Thank you so much for sharing your insights – it’s genuinely appreciated! All the best…

  3. What doesn’t kill us – makes us stronger. I believe it is only natural to feel wounded… to feel the need to lash out. The leader (even of one’s own life) has to be strong enough to take a step back… and turn these natural negative feelings into strength. It isn’t easy … but taking the step back. Go to the gym and beat on the punching bag or do extra reps on the weight rack… then start to consider your positive plan. The rise up like the phoenix.

    Lisa – hope all is well with you and that – whatever the issue – you find an even better pathway.

    • Stephen,

      It’s so good to see you here and I’m perfectly fine now – thank you so much for the concern. For me the path is still the same, meaning – I was on the right one and just got a bit “sidetracked.” :)

      I absolutely love your statement, “rise up like the phoenix.” What a brilliant and perfect visual! Thank you so much for sharing…

  4. Lisa,
    A beautiful post. I’ll just share this with you.

    It sounds as if you’re well on your way – connecting to your higher self and your “inner inspiration”.

    What I’ve found is that it’s the will of love that makes all the difference. A spiritual mentor of mine says it much better than i ever will with this:

    “The mystery and mysticism of will: When you mix the power to will into love, a dynamism of change happens. Magic happens. The power to “will” brings definition, design and direction to the deepening and the awakening of consciousness. Creation can become manifestation. Potential becomes actual.”

    I love that so much because every time I face a setback it’s always (for me) a crisis of confidence (am I good enough). And with “Will” – it’s about choice. And with the choice comes magic.

    Talk soon….

    • Rob,

      You are a truly enlightened man.

      This is spectacularly beautiful and engrossing all at once – thank you so much for sharing it. What’s amazing to me is that last night I put on a bracelet that was given to me by my “spiritual mentor” and it contains 3 of the words you quote. I’m almost at a loss for words right now.

      We definitely need to meet someday soon and talk about our journeys. In the meantime, thank you for the insights and guidance you so willingly share!

  5. Lisa, a beautiful post, and timeless! I love Hans’ remark, “There is no failure, only feedback.” To me, “failure” suggests a disappointment with a turn of events or one’s (individual or firm) performance that is lower than hoped or expected. When you approach it at a higher level, it’s always there to teach you something: either you set expectations too high or underperformed or circumstances outside your control may have intervened. It’s often easier to try to create the illusion of being in control by blaming oneself or others. If you can truly say you or the org have underperformed, that’s the learning. But if you have given it your all, it is destiny or whatever your spiritual beliefs are.

    As mere mortals, we can only use the knowledge we have in front of us and make the best decisions we can. We may learn subsequently that it was the wrong decision, but we didn’t have that information at the time. I believe it’s counterproductive to regret and try to relive “as if” we had had that knowledge. We didn’t. Whether fate or God didn’t want us to. In cases like that, have faith that it wasn’t meant.

    I think about this regularly. Play the cards you are dealt as best you can. Have intent and honor your intent with passion. When your intent suffers a setback, honor it by crying. Then reevaluate and ask what the situation taught you: about yourself, the company, the people or circumstances involved.

    One of my most painful setbacks: I got rejected by Kellogg on my birthday in 1993. I was crushed, as I wanted to do my MBA to pursue my dream of working in a global management consultancy. I’d given it everything but didn’t make it. Five years later, I was hired by PwC management consulting and was in short order interviewing hopeful HBS, Chicago, Wharton grads. The MBA was not my path, but by giving it my all and not admitting defeat, I made it happen another way. Just as easily, I could have discovered that management consulting wasn’t my path, even though I thought it was the best thing at the time.

    Thanks again for an inspiring post, and here’s to your emerging stronger and more determined! You’ll find it, and it’ll be even sweeter!!

    • Thank you, Chris – and I loved Hans’s comment too. :)

      Chris, I’m really moved by how honest and open you were in this comment – especially in regard to intent and honoring it by crying and then reevaluating in the face of setback. I think that honesty is incredibly refreshing.

      And thank you for sharing your own personal experience with setback – I can imagine how painful that must have been, especially to get the news on your birthday. But the brilliance of seeing it only as a setback – and of reaching your goals via a whole different path – that’s truly inspiring.

      I’m so glad you came by Chris – it means a lot to me!

      • Lisa, thanks for creating an inspiring space to discuss, you’re taking things to a new level! To dare is not hard to understand, but it is hard to do. Daring means risking “failure” – it’s living at a whole new level. Terrifying at times. We all begin with some chips, and it’s an art to know how and when to place your bets. Daring and being reckless are not at all the same. To me, “daring” suggests an awareness of risk – and a calculation. It involves investing more of oneself. Being reckless seldom engenders grief because risk wasn’t considered beforehand.

        Trying your hardest demands courage, it’s really simple, but very difficult.
        Christopher S. Rollyson´s last blog post ..Enterprise Adoption of Social Business 2010—Social Knowledge Gap a Key Barrier

        • Chris I love how you differentiate between “daring” and “reckless” – and yes, being daring does involve courage. I had to accept this when I started this blog and was open about having a very feminine approach to business and strategy. For me, it felt very daring to take the step and the courage did not come easily!

          All the best, Chris!

  6. One of my favorite quotes is “Disappointments are to the soul what the thunder-storm is to the air”

    It can mean different things to different people… probably why I like it so much.

    Steve O
    steve olenski´s last blog post ..Social Snake Oil Still Readily Available

  7. It’s amazing that you were able to overcome the “pain and guilt” so fast. For me, that is always the hardest to overcome. But once you do, your vision is usually so much clearer and focused.

    • Paul,

      I have someone very special who reminds me that the pain and guilt are not mine to bear – which is incredibly helpful and comforting. And you’re so right about the vision being clearer and more focused when you’ve let go of all that’s holding you back!

      Thanks so much for sharing your own challenge…

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