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When The Crowd Turns: How To Soar When Your Supporters Bail

by | May 19, 2021

And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all. Fame! You’ll be famous as famous can be, with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.

Except when they don’t. Because, sometimes they won’t. — Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

People are fickle. As difficult as it is to get our arms around this truth, it’s an important lesson for leaders. When we fail, and we will fail, the crowd that earlier showered accolades upon us will often be the same group calling for our heads.

For example:

On April 23, 2004, Derek Jeter stepped up to the plate at Yankee Stadium with his team trailing the Boston Red Sox 7-0. After taking two called strikes, Jeter went down swinging and struck out for the third time. Then it happened. The fans that for years had screamed “Jeter” with love and admiration unexpectedly made an unsettling pivot. At that moment, the cheers that had historically filled “the House that Ruth Built” turned to a cacophony of boos.

The crowd had turned.

After the Macintosh computer failed to meet expectations following its release in 1984, Steve Jobs became embattled in a power struggle over the future of the company. Eventually, the board of directors sided with CEO John Sculley and removed Jobs from his role as “Apple’s chief visionary.” Job’s handpicked CEO, along with a previously supportive board, effectively showed Jobs the front door.

The crowd had turned.

Following victory in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, former President George H.W. Bush’s approval rating soared to a record 89%, the highest presidential job approval rating ever recorded to that date. Over the next year, facing a declining economy and ongoing domestic challenges, Bush’s approval rating dropped to 29%, eventually leading to his defeat in the 1992 presidential election.

The crowd had turned.

When things are going well, there’s no shortage of supporters who want to join the journey, but when trouble comes knocking, it can get lonely very quickly. The question is: How do you respond when the crowd seems to turn? Here are three steps that can help.

Step 1: Own Your Failure

The first and often the hardest step of this process is to honestly acknowledge your role in what’s happened. This means admitting your mistakes and then taking steps to ensure that they aren’t repeated.

Sometimes this means admitting that you failed to perform. In a post-game interview following the 2004 booing incident, Jeter bluntly said, “I don’t blame them … It’s hard to imagine being worse than we were tonight. Put me at the front of that list.” When we fail to deliver, we must own that failure and not blame others.

Sometimes it means acknowledging our role in a failed strategy. In a 1999 interview with CNN’s Larry King, Bush said: “I’ve got a whole rationale of reasons of why I did not get reelected. But maybe, if I’d have been a little more emotional or more revealing of the person, why, maybe it ought to have helped …” Bush could have mentioned any number of factors that contributed to his loss, but he shouldered the responsibility himself.

Other times it’s not a specific action that caused our failure, but rather something we lost in our drive for success. Years following the Apple fiasco, Jobs said: “I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter into one of the most creative periods of my life.”

It’s in these moments of reflection that we can gain clarity about who we are as leaders and learn invaluable lessons that can shape our lives moving forward.

Step 2: Pick Yourself Up And Move On

When the crowds are booing and you’ve hit bottom, it’s easy to consider giving up. Don’t. Great leaders have a level of persistence that pushes them to recover after major failures. In a manner reminiscent of Rocky Balboa, their greatness often emerges when they’re on the ropes:

• Jeter went on to lead the 2004 Yankees to 101 wins and an American League East championship.

• In the years after leaving Apple, Jobs went on to serve as CEO of Pixar and as executive producer of the 1995 Disney-Pixar film Toy Story.

• After leaving the White House, Bush joined with his former political nemesis, former President Bill Clinton, to raise relief funds in the aftermath of the Southeast Asia tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Step 3: Intentionally Define Your Tomorrow

It can be lonely when the crowd turns. Even the fans who stick with us often pile on by highlighting our failures and the reasons that they believe we can’t recover. When this happens, remember that you’re not defined by yesterday, but rather by how you shape tomorrow. Successful leaders are able to see what is yet to exist and then make it a reality. While our past certainly informs and shapes us, it doesn’t define us. Heck, even the fickle crowd usually comes back around:

• On May 14, 2017, the Yankees retired Jeter’s No. 2 jersey and honored him in Monument Park, where he joined franchise immortals such Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth.

• Jobs returned to Apple as CEO in 1997, leading in the development of the iPod, iPhone and iPad, which literally transformed the technology world.

• Prior to his death on Nov. 30, 2018, Bush was the most popular living former president with an approval rating of 64%.

Remember that great leaders are forged in the crucible of failure. Don’t waste those moments when the crowd turns and you’re left to face your failures alone. Embrace them. You just might find it changes your life.

Lavon Gray is a certified leadership coach and popular speaker and trainer in educational and corporate organizations across the U.S.