Career setbacks can be demoralizing but they don’t need to be debilitating.

In fact, CCL research shows that many executives look at setbacks and mistakes as turning points or important lessons in making them effective or successful leaders.

“Early setbacks represent a key developmental event that successful executives cite when they look back over their careers,” said CCL’s Ellen Van Velsor in a recent article in The Wall Street Journal. Van Velsor, a CCL Senior Fellow, has been involved in the Center’s “Lessons of Experience” research for more than two decades.

In the May 4, 2010 article, Three Who Thrived After Early Gaffes, columnist Joanne Lublin described setbacks of Jeffery Hollender, co-founder of Seventh Generation Inc.; Peter G. Peterson, the billionaire co-founder of Blackstone Group LP; and Myron E. Ullman III, chief executive of J.C. Penney Co. Each of these executives used their stumbles as learning experiences. They reflected on their missteps and mistakes and, as a result, made important personal and career decisions.

CCL’s Lessons of Experience studies show that the ability to reflect on and learn from hardships is important to the growth and success of leaders around the globe. The research, initiated in the United States in the early 1980s, looked at the key developmental events in male executives’ lives and the lessons learned from those events. Over the years, CCL conducted similar studies with women, African Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, as well as with international executives, including senior leaders from China, Singapore and India.

Adverse situations — such as crises, mistakes, career setbacks and ethical dilemmas — are important developmental moments. Tangible business losses, loss of confidence or loss of control are all powerful experiences. And, while adversity is not something to seek out, it can be a powerful opportunity to learn.

Many leaders — across cultures — believe that the experience of hardship prepared them to thrive in better times. As one Chinese saying puts it, ”First bitter, then sweet.”

This article is adapted from “Learning from Experience” in The Center for Creative Leadership Handbook of Leadership Development.

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