French Lessons: Leadership through Failure

In my 25+ years of working with business leaders, I have observed powerful, predictable patterns. Some patterns produce amazing outcomes while others lead to dissatisfaction, plateaus, or more serious consequences. Let me share a personal story to let you in on how my study of leadership and self-mastery got started.

This quest for what I view as “the ultimate powerplay” (results + fulfillment) began when I was close to flunking French at the University of Michigan. As a wise and clever 20-year-old, I thought it would be interesting to study not Spanish, which was a language I had had 4 years of high school training in, but French. Yes, something fresh, romantic, and fun. Why not? It didn’t occur to me that every other student in French 101 actually had several years of study in French behind them and the class assumed that to be true for every student. By the time I realized I was way in over my head, it was mid-terms. What was I going to do? I couldn’t cram for the tests; I couldn’t magically get my mouth to produce sounds my mind had yet comprehended. What was I to do? I tried my very best and got the results I most feared, a “D”, as in Devastated. I had to find a better game plan, but what?

Today, I see that moment as pivotal in my career. Failure was not an option and yet I had reached the limits of my current capabilities. I was getting emotional and that was further clouding my thinking. The teacher and the language lab were only helping so much. Having transferred into this school, I didn’t have any classmates to lean on yet and frankly I was embarrassed. So now what?

This was the first time I became aware of something I notice consistently now in business: the arrival of the strategic choice point. Leaders often lack awareness when they are at this point. Or, like me in those early days, if they do know they’ve hit that ‘moment’ when you don’t know what to do next but something needs to be done, they don’t really know where next to turn.

Fortunately this uncomfortable yet strategic choice point was actually my launching pad. Through a flyer, I found a French exchange student and I took lessons. He made French real for me. When we worked together, it was total immersion. I had to start deciphering sounds, gestures, and objects, then connect them with words. I was learning the language as children learn their native tongues. We studied at the library, but also had meals together and even saw movies in French. I walked around campus listening to his seemingly mumbled monologues and I was learning. I heard the rhythm, the tonalities, saw how subtle body movements produced sounds, started to create meaning, making sense. I was learning a new language and gained confidence. Remember my original intent was to study something fresh, romantic, and fun? Well long story short, the intention did manifest itself. I was inspired and managed to get passing grades, and ‘romantic’ took a whole new meaning when I moved to France after graduation and started an exciting quest that changed the course of my life forever. 

Thinking about such pivotal moments in time can help you understand what shaped your career and leadership. Looking at such an example will highlight your decision making, resourcefulness, and values. So what about you?

Contact Kathleen Joy, CEO of Lumiere Work to learn more.