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Rejection is tough to take, but leaders have the drive and ability to bounce back from a setback with boundless energy
There isn't one of us who hasn't felt the painful sting of rejection at some time. It's part of the human condition; anyone who says they haven't been through it is either acutely neurotic, is suffering from chronic amnesia, or is in total denial.
Why then must we take it so personally? Well, biology, for one. Scientists at UCLA have demonstrated that the brain's response to rejection is the same as the reaction to actual, physical pain. The pain is real and we all feel it; the difference is in how we deal with it. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, "Into each life some rain must fall." Yet even through a hailstorm, we must carry on, the hail stones bouncing away, their sharp bites lessening with time.
Sander A. Flaum
A person who is rejected is forced to make some emotional choices. The easy choice is to get angry and hole up somewhere with a vodka or two feeling sorry for yourself. Another option is to reflect on the rejecter, gradually dismissing her or him as ignorant, naive, misinformed, dumb—then climb up to a better place and make something good happen. Said another way, winners take a deep breath and bounce back, relaunching with boundless energy. When faced with rejection, we must act decisively and with enthusiasm at the earliest opportunity.
A good example is one of our nation's greatest heroes, Abraham Lincoln, a man who was defeated in races for the Illinois General Assembly, US House of Representatives, and US Senate, as well as failing in a bid for his party's Vice Presidential nomination before becoming the 16th President of the United States. Decades into his career, he still considered himself a failure in comparison to the man he would ultimately defeat for the presidency, fellow Illinoisan Stephen Douglas. But it was Lincoln's perseverance and integrity that carried him through numerous setbacks and personal attacks.
Lincoln had a number of obstacles to overcome—he had neither looks, formal education, nor money. He was called "a horrid looking wretch," and a "zoological curiosity," by the newspapermen of the day. He suffered brutal criticism of his administration and his personal character from detractors on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, as well as from members of his own Cabinet. Long tormented by his own melancholy and such torrents of criticism, he nonetheless stayed true to the course and his vision to preserve the Union. Abraham Lincoln, frequently named the greatest of all American Presidents, persevered in the face of the most cruel rejection.
Whether rejection stems from a brilliant idea whose time has not yet come, a leadership style conflict, a promotion you thought you deserved but were passed over for, or lack of cooperation from key players in strategy implementation, the bounce-back strategy is crucial. Consider the difficulties executives face today, with tremendous turnover among the top ranks and reductions announced by eight of the world's 10 largest Pharma companies in the last three years.
Getting to the top is no accident. Leaders become accustomed to being right, and having people believe in them. Therefore, when someone doesn't, it is, frankly, a blow—maybe even a bigger blow because of the personal investment of lifework, energy, passion, and vision.
But rejection can also be a kind of gift. Dealing with the rejection in a positive way will allow the situation to propel you forward, making you better today than you were yesterday. Hear the train whistle blow and get aboard—rejection should be nothing more than a station stop along the line to your chosen destination
Lincoln said: "If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business. I do the very best I know how—the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what's said against me won't amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference."
Success over time is the best tonic to rejection. So when it's time to step up to the plate, keep your eye on the ball and hit it out of the park. Everything comes down to practice, and rejection is an opportunity to practice greatness, wisdom, magnanimity, integrity, and perseverance.
Sander A. Flaum is managing partner of Flaum Partners and chairman, Fordham Graduate School of Business, Leadership Forum. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org