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Why the best leaders are defined by their failures

March 26, 2015, 7:00 PM UTC
Alyse Nelson
Alyse Nelson, President and Chief Executive Officer of Vital Voices.
Photograph by Lisa Nipp for Vital Voices

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: How should every successful woman deal with rejection? is written by Alyse Nelson, CEO and co-founder of Vital Voices Global Partnership.

Every leader I know has a story of a setback. Leaders are defined – not defeated – by setbacks. The truth is, it’s not rejection or failure that holds us back, it’s the way we choose to respond. And ultimately, it’s what we choose to do in a tough situation that enables us to realize our potential to succeed. A few years ago I heard Arianna Huffington say, “Failure is not the opposite of success; it’s a stepping stone to success.”And I couldn’t agree more.

For 18 years, I’ve worked with exceptional women leaders who have been able to achieve their goals because they refuse to give up. What matters most is not the act of failing, but how we pick ourselves up after we get knocked down — the lessons we take away. There are two things everyone should do when faced with failure: learn from it and keep going. True leaders are determined. They’re cause-driven. Their power is rooted in self-awareness. We have to be humble about our strengths and weaknesses, and then choose to move forward with clarity of purpose.

I believe that most leaders are not born, they’re made from experience and opportunity. Failure is a key part of this. Failures strengthen our resolve and help us cultivate a deeply held conviction. You can’t be a leader without knowing why you’re leading – without a defined and unshakeable sense of purpose. Sometimes we realize this purpose only after being tested. When we fail, we gain perspective about where we’re going, how we’re going to get there, and why we began in the first place.

In my own experience, the times I’ve been knocked down have given me invaluable insight –about my leadership, my driving force, and myself. Personal development is hard-fought and hard-won – but it’s worth it. Four years ago, I had the rare privilege of meeting with Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in Rangoon. She had just been released from unjust house arrest that had lasted 20 years. It’s an experience that’s stayed with me, and I know I will always look back on those few hours as one of the most surreal and inspiring experiences of my life.

Throughout a lifetime of leadership, Aung San Suu Kyi has never hesitated to stake her voice, her freedom or her safety to preserve an ideal. She has taken enormous risks, endured persecution and countless setbacks. But these don’t compare to the worth she sees in protecting values of equality, democracy, and justice. She chooses to see beyond the risk of failure because she is intently focused on her vision for Burma and lets nothing deter her sense of purpose or rob her conviction.

She told me something that I’ve shared with so many of the women we work with. She said, “the difference between good intentions and great leadership is the courage and commitment to stay the course, no matter how difficult the path.” I think it’s a message for all of us, especially when we think about rejection. Leaders don’t give in to failure, they rise above it. They see promise where others see problems. They lead – relentlessly – because they’re determined to someday live in the world they imagine.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: How should every successful woman deal with rejection?

5 stages of rejection (and how to deal) by Beth Fisher-Yoshida, director of Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program at Columbia University.

Keep making mistakes at work? Here’s how to recover by Kathy Bloomgarden, CEO of Ruder Finn.

How to successfully deal with rejection at work by Beth Monaghan, principal and co-founder of InkHouse.

How to shake off rejection like Taylor Swift by Beth Comstock, senior vice president and CMO of General Electric.

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