How Do Leaders Deal With Disappointment?

Prior to some business travels I arranged for three people to help me with some small projects while I was away. As my trip was an extended one, it was helpful to lighten my load by downloading a few tasks. However, upon my return I discovered that none of the tasks had been completed and I had to play catch-up with things I thought had been taken care of.

Does this sound familiar to you? Can you recall the emotions you had to manage as you handle the disappointments of your professional (and personal) life? As a result of this experience, I have been pondering a question which lies at the crux of this story:

How do leaders deal with disappointment?

As I have pondered this question my mind was drawn to some work from a colleague, Dr. Catharyn Baird. She has developed an ethical decision making model which is a helpful way to understand the different approaches that we use to make moral choices. By adapting her framework, I have developed a means by which we can assess our disappointment response styles. Here are the four leadership approaches to disappointment.

Head: This mindset takes a logical approach to disappointment. It deals with the facts, assesses alternatives and then acts on them. The inner voice of this perspective says, “Be logical. Define the problem, determine options, select the best option and deal with it. Don’t focus on the things you cannot change and deal with the things you can.”

Heart: This perspective takes an empathetic approach to disappointment. It may focus on the emotions that this challenge causes you (frustration, anxiety, anger) or it may try to assess the heart of the other person (what is going on in their lives that led to this outcome?). The inner voice of this perspective asks, “How does this make me or the other person feel? What are the issues that caused this disappointment? How can I positively (or negatively) respond in light of these emotions?”

Me: This approach considers how disappointment personally affects you. The inner voice of this perspective asks, “What did I do that caused this? Were my requests unclear or unrealistic? What could I have done differently to achieve my goals? How can I respond in order that this doesn’t happen to me again?”

Them: This approach considers the other person and minimizes your own personal disappointment. The inner voice of this perspective asks, “What are the issues in the other person’s life that caused this? Did they see my requests unclear or unrealistic? What do we need to do to ensure that this doesn’t occur again?”

I believe that leaders must learn to use all four of these perspectives in order to make well-thought out conclusions. Each perspective has questions that are salient and helpful. However, each perspective also carries a bias which naturally excludes consideration of some other useful perspectives.

Disappointed leaders who only focus on themselves (me) are apt to stomp on others. Those who only focus on others (them) they will have a tendency to place the needs of others above their own. The heart approach can focus on feelings instead of action. The action-oriented head approach can be a means to avoid the relational efforts required to work with others.

Effective leaders know themselves, their biases and their blind spots. Your disappointment style is one more way by which to understand your leadership style. Do you know your bias? Which of these four perspectives – head, heart, me or them – do you gravitate to most quickly? Which disappointment perspective do you find the hardest to use?


Jeff SuHead Shotderman is a futurist, professor, consultant and pracademic who works in the field of organizational development. He works with clients to improve leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational FutureReadiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman. Email:

The content of this article was influenced by the work of Dr. Catharyn Baird and her work on the Ethical Lens Inventory.

Photo Credit – Lithuanian beach via @jlsuderman (Instagram)