Game, set and hatch

  • Ashley Howden
  • 22 May 2017

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As a teen, I was a handy tennis player. But when it came to crunch time and everyone else was turning pro and packing their bags for Ukrainian Challenger circuit tournaments, I lost my mojo. I grew a foot in a year, became a gangly, awkward mess on court and, in the end, my interest disappeared. Honestly, I probably just wasn’t bloody good enough.

Instead, I went to uni and studied psychology. The plan was to become a professional sports psychologist on the ATP Tour and live vicariously through the success of others. That never happened either. But, when I turned 35 I did qualify (by age) for the International Tennis Federation Veterans Tour. Entering the main draw of Seniors Gentleman’s Wimbledon, I had the opportunity to stroll into SW19’s locker rooms as a player for the first time. While I had my arse handed to me, I’d also accrued enough ranking points to end up in the top 300 Over 35’s in the world. I was pretty pleased.

On court, as in life

My experiences on the tennis court have never been far separated from other areas of my life. And the lessons hard-earned under a blistering Melbourne sun have stuck with me for years – never more so, than in the arena of failure. You see, tennis is a binary sport. You either win or you lose. There is no draw. It should come as no surprise then, that this has been one of the fundamental breeding grounds for my views on leadership. The ethos of accountability has never left me.

Leadership is about owning the outcome. Every time. Every point, every game, every set – win or lose. If more people in leadership positions did so and more organisational designs allowed for it, then I think we’d have much more collegial workplaces. In my tennis career, the losses were always hard to stomach. But they taught me the ability to compartmentalise. During the course of a match, you have to shrug off a lost game and find ways to change tactically. You have to reset your confidence with every point, trying to will yourself to the win. And, if you finally fail, the internal monologue around the post-mortem and the gut-wrenching disappointment of the loss only serve as a catalyst to focus on the next match. And the training you need to do improve your chance of winning.

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Big gains from little wins and losses

When it comes to personal relationships, we find ways of moving on from a former friend or partner and spend time reflecting on the good and the bad. The hurt can be extreme and seemingly endless. But, eventually, we meet other people who renew our ability to trust and be vulnerable again. In business, it’s no different.

The little wins – new products, new services, new clients or customers, a capital raise, an obstacle overcome, a more efficient process or system discovered. The little losses – attrition of clients or customers, an underperforming employee, losing a trusted team member or products and services that haven't worked the way you thought they would. This is the punch and counter-punch of the day-to-day, week-to-week chapters in the overall narrative of your business. They either imbue you with confidence or leave your self-belief decimated. Because there’s never really a draw in business either. And being able to reconcile the failure of a business or large program of work is one of the hardest things any entrepreneur or senior executive will have to do.

At that stage, the little wins you had along the way should be taken into your heart to remind you that there were some ‘plus’ signs in what you did. And remembering the little losses, and working out which ones were within your control and which weren’t, will help you rationalise the areas that you could do with improving. Get your mentors around; the ones who speak into your business endeavours and your life as a whole. 

Nothing will ever take the failure away; but with time, candour and discipline, the emotion of desolation can gestate to optimism. And, ultimately, hatch a renewed belief in yourself and your ability to lead again.


Connect with Ash Howden, CEO of KJR - LinkedIn or Twitter

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