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Spilled Milk Epiphany

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The other day I said to my daughter, "Stop crying over spilled milk." Of course, what I really meant was, “Stop overreacting or criticizing yourself when 'stuff happens’.”

How many times have you heard this statement? Perhaps, the better question is, “How often have you expressed this sentiment?” Spilling milk (e.g., making mistakes, experiencing failures, and confronting road blocks) will occur in our lives. It happens. It’s inevitable. But, how we respond to these episodes is the true test of leadership.

In doing some thinking around this idiom, I've concluded 'spilled milk' situations strengthen our leadership skills and enhance our personal growth—if we just take time to ask a few questions of ourselves:
  1. Can I use this setback to reinforce my character, demonstrate my values, and set a powerful example for others in how to respond? When we accept personal responsibility for our mistakes, we Model the Way for others to do the same. 

  2. Can I ask “What can we learn when things don’t go as expected?” Behavior #18 of the LPI® encourages us to take time to reflect and learn from our initiatives. When we do, we create teaching moments and opportunities that Enable Others to Act toward greater success. 

  3. Finally, how can our ‘Spilled Milk’ moments build our resilience? Angela Duckworth in her book Grit talks about her research on the powerful combination of passion and persistence—stating that it truly is what separates the winners from the also-rans. 
When we frame it correctly, we learn that failure is never the end of the road. It is only a small step in a greater journey. As noted by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner in their book, The Truth about Leadership, “you never know where one step will take you, and you never know where the next one will lead.”

Remember that imperfections and mistakes are important in our journeys as leaders. We get better by learning from the missteps we will no doubt make. And we get to be authentic by being imperfect.


Lawandra Smith, a Certified Master-in-Training of The Leadership Challenge®, is a 25-year veteran working in public sector organizations. Currently a Leadership for Advance Management Specialist with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), she delivers The Leadership Challenge workshops to middle and executive management across the state and can be reached at Lawandra.smith@dfps.state.tx.us.

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