Developing leadership capacity doesn’t come in a day. Instead, for many, our abilities can be described in how we handle an array of situations, including failure. Winners set high standards. We fail, learn, and try again. We realize failing to achieve a stretch goal is not failing. It is what we call living. It is also how our design unfolds and we maximize our talent.

Have courage enough to try.

Remember trying out for the school play, the basketball team, or the choir? If your school was like mine, the opportunity to try out was available, but skills to perform at the highest level required dedication and hard work. Most of the time I wasn’t good enough, but that didn’t stop me. In my case, I always had to work hard to keep up and even harder if I expected to excel. My parents would encourage me to try when some activity captured my interest.

As my time as a high school student came to a close, a unique opportunity presented itself. The would opportunities for two students to share their parting thoughts with the graduating class. Anyone could apply. I had the courage enough to try, so I applied.

Prepare like crazy.

The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to be one of the two speakers. I really, really wanted to be selected. But, would my talk be good enough. I wasn’t sure. My three years in high school left me feeling hopeful for the future. I had grown so much and felt I had a story to tell about my experience that many fellow students would relate well to. I was feeling confident, but to be successful I needed superior preparation.

I knew the competition would be difficult. More than 10 students were trying out. Many were pretty popular, super talented, and most of them I thought were better looking. I felt any of them would have done a great job. Some were in the swing choir, performed theatre, while others spoke in public regularly as part of FFA (Future Farmers of America) and other student groups.

Use what you have.

In high school, I was a serious kid and problem solver and didn’t have much artistic talent except for playing the trumpet, which I loved. I possessed some speaking skills as a debater, but I wasn’t trying to make or defend an argument. I could look people in the eye and tell them what I believed. That would have to be good enough.

Not to be deterred, I remained on a mission. Once I set my mind to something, few obstacles stop me. I work hard, prepare, and don’t quit. I wouldn’t be scared out of the try-out; I would push through whatever fear I might experience. I knew I had what it took to be one of the two students to be selected. I just had to convince the teachers.

While not a natural public speaker, I worked hard on writing a compelling story. My story wove conceptions of what I thought high school would be like on my first day and some of my discoveries along the way. I went right to work. Outlining my theme of discovery, I identified the main points and wrote and re-wrote the speech many times. Even today I remember some of its elements.

Give them your best.

During the try-out, we went up in front of the panelists and did our best to convey our talk and connect with the audience. I remember I could hardly breathe. My heart pounded so hard that I felt I might pass out. No one knew how terrified I was, only I knew. After all the speakers had a chance, I felt pretty good about mine. I thought they would select a boy and a girl. I would be right.

Accept uncertainty.

Then something happened I had not anticipated. One of the teachers pushed in front of us a TV and set up a video for us to watch. I thought to myself,

“What new mischief is this?”

We all sat looking up at the TV as the teacher pressed play and witnessed another student on the screen giving his presentation. I couldn’t help but think how many times he had a chance to record it.

I admit he was good. I wasn’t sure if his talk was better than mine but would find out soon. All the students returned home and awaited a phone call. I received mine later in the evening.

Embrace your values.

“Hello,” I said.

The caller was one of the panelists and she got right to the point. She told me that I came in third.

She went on to explain only two students could be selected due to time constraints, but the committee discussed having three, but couldn’t get it approved. They were sorry, thanked me for my try-out and that was it. We hung up.

Coming in third was not my goal. Coming in third place did not feel satisfying. In fact, it hurt. My mind raced with all sorts of thoughts. Was it worth all the hours of work I put in?

Now I would go to our graduation ceremony and have to listen to the two individuals who were selected. I had some feeling to sort through, but wouldn’t happen that night. I would need to think about what was truly important.

What feelings would I let live in my thoughts and guide my actions? I wasn’t sure and it took time to sort through. All I knew for sure is I was deeply disappointed and no one knew the sting I was feeling at that time. Maybe the other kids weren’t chosen, but I was too proud to talk to them about it.

When faced with disappointment, we have to decide what we value most and who we want to become.

Ask three questions:

1. Would you give in to jealously or applaud other’s success?

I chose to applaud and hope you would too. All the while it didn’t reduce the sting. But I learned I could share in the joy of others’ success. I did my best. They did too and they won the day. I chose to be okay with it. You can too.

2. What lesson will you learn from a failure?

I learned coming in third meant I might actually be better than I thought. The two students were good and did a terrific job. I wrote an important story for me and helped me remember that time in my life that many forget. Coming in third will surely provide you with an important lesson you can carry forward.

3. What can you do to prepare for next time?

Stories make up our lives and moments make up stories. I couldn’t say if the others out-prepared me, but I knew my commitment to hard work and sticking to my values would carry me into college and my future career. If you didn’t win because of preparation, you can fix that and bet you will.

Closing Thoughts

Becoming a leader others want to follow comes from examining moments in your life where you have made important choices. When you do the courageous thing, worked hard, and shipped your best work, you are already a winner. How you react when others win, proves it to everyone else.

Eric Peterson currently serves as technical program manager for a Fortune 500 Financial Services Company in Denver, Colorado. In addition to his job, he volunteered to form a team that employed servant leadership principles to architect a sustainable model supporting 730 employees. The community encourages staff driven initiatives in areas that include innovation, fellowship, and personal development. He earned a BS in Finance from the University of Nebraska and a MA from Webster University in Information Technology and Resource Management. He is a values-centered leader that equips people to lead more effectively through employing servant leadership principles. He also writes a weekly blog on leadership and team building found at

Image courtesy of Julia Larson.