Leadership Wired Blog

Learning to Prevail: When Dreams Disappoint and Hopes Fail


A Dream Deferred
By Langston Hughes


What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?


I love Langston Hughes’s poem, but I’ll admit that I’m more interested in what happens to the leader whose dream is deferred. How should a leader respond when her dream dies? How does a leader recover when his hopes are dashed?

1) A failed dream doesn’t make you a failure.

The moment a dream dies, we’re hit with a wave of negative emotions. We’re sad, disappointed, and prone to second-guess ourselves. To make matters worse, the demise of a dream usually happens publicly; the people around us see it shatter.

While no fun to experience, failure is a natural, instructive, and unavoidable feature of life. Consequently, wise leaders learn not to pin their self-worth on performance; rather, they possess an internal self-image that’s unaffected by outcomes. People with an unhealthy view of failure personalize it, seeing the failure as a reflection of their inadequacy. Conversely, those with a healthy outlook on life externalize failure. They understand its inevitability, and they look for the lessons it brings. One mindset wallows in the emotions of failure; the other works through them in anticipation of future triumphs.

2) Even when dreams die, our purpose remains.

Success is knowing your purpose in life, growing to reach your maximum potential, and sowing seeds that benefit others. Notice that success is not defined by accomplishing your dream. Life is a journey rather than a destination. No matter how long you live or what you decide to do in life, you will never exhaust your capacity to grow toward your potential, nor will you run out of opportunities to help others. Your dreams may not come true, but the purpose for which you were created always endures.

3) By reflecting on our purpose, we can birth new dreams.

Dreams are pictures of our purpose. Just as Van Gogh’s Starry Night points to a beauty beyond its brushstrokes, but can never fully capture the loveliness of the night sky, so a leader’s dream only hints at the richness and wonder of her God-given purpose. When our dreams die, nothing is healthier than to reexamine our purpose. “Revision” literally means, “to see again.” Peering into our life’s purpose inspires us to revise our dreams or to give birth to new ones.

We can also think of dreams as paths leading us toward our purpose. My purpose is to add value to leaders who will multiply value to others. There are millions of routes by which I could realize my purpose. Sometimes the path I take leads to a dead-end, but I always have the option of finding another road on which to travel. The specific dream I choose to follow may not work out, but I still have a purpose, and I can keep exploring new avenues to realize it.


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