Editor’s Note: This article is one of the top 10 business lessons of 2015. See the full list here.
Losing your job isn’t something anyone wants, but the experience can make a person a better leader. Steve Jobs, Carly Fiorina, Mark Cuban, and Anna Wintour were all fired during their careers, for example, and each came back stronger.
Imergy Power Systems CEO Bill Watkins was just 21 when he was fired the first time. Working in the psychiatric ward of a Texas hospital during the early ‘70s, the head nurse told him to cut his hair; the hospital had a policy that male employees’ hair couldn’t be longer than the top of their ears. Watkins refused.
“I argued that I couldn’t cut my hair because I would no longer be able to relate to the drug- and alcohol-addicted patients in my charge,” he recalls. “My job was to calm them down and connect with them on an emotional level. If I cut my hair, I would look like a policeman to them, and they wouldn’t trust me.”
Watkins admits that although he believed in his argument, deep down he just really didn’t want to cut his hair. When he told his dad how ineffective he would have been at helping patients if he had followed the hospital’s demand, his father cut through the excuse and got to the point: “He said, ‘Well, Billy Doug, tell me: How many patients are you helping now?’” says Watkins. “He was pointing out that there is a fine line between bullshit and righteousness.”
The second time Watkins was fired, the stakes were higher, but the reason was fundamentally the same. In 2009, a disagreement with the Seagate Technology board led to his immediate dismissal as CEO: “Situations come up and you’ve got to stand up and do what you think is right,” says Watkins. “A board can be right in what they want, and you can be right, too. It’s about stepping up and being who you are.”
Strong leaders believe in themselves and don’t give up their principles, says Watkins: “You’ll have so many opportunities to sell yourself, then you turn 62 and realize that your dreams died somewhere along the way,” he says. “At the end of the day, you have to feel good. Battles happen all the time, and if you’re never pushed, you never know your limits. Decide who you are and be comfortable with how things end up. I don’t think being fired is a badge of honor, but it’s not a bad thing.”
Getting fired is feedback about how you are showing up, says Lewis Howes, author of The School of Greatness: A Real-World Guide to Living Bigger, Loving Deeper, and Leaving A Legacy. “Whether or not the reasons you are fired are accurate or fair, the point is that those reasons are how you are perceived,” he says. “Many people get hung up on whether what happens to them is right or fair. It’s more important to be open to the feedback you’re receiving so that you can adjust the image you are promoting to be aligned with the truth.”
While he admits he probably wouldn’t do things differently, being fired twice taught Watkins that he doesn’t always have to push things to the limit: “I have a tendency to say, ‘If you don’t do it my way, I’m taking my ball and going home,’” he says. “But too many people work for me and trust me. If I get upset and leave because I can, then I’m not helping them.”
Getting fired is also an opportunity to take a look inside and evaluate what you want to do professionally, says Howes. “Most of the time, getting fired means you either weren’t in the right job in the first place, or something in your life was out of balance to the point that it hampered your ability to really perform to your full potential,” he says. “Either scenario is your opportunity to identify what’s not working and course correct. If you use getting fired the right way, it can be your biggest opportunity for professional growth in the direction you want to head.”
While you often learn more from failure than from success, Watkins says you should strive to stay in the success column. “I’d rather learn from success than experience failure,” he says. “I think my life has been defined by trying to make sure I do things for principles and not for bullshit–but don’t bullshit yourself. Make sure your reasons are legitimate; don’t confuse them with a personal agenda.”