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Leadership Strategies to Overcome Adversity
By every conventional measure, J. K. Rowling was mired in her darkest hour. Her exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded. She had been sacked and was as poor as it was possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless. “By every usual standard,” she admits, “I was the biggest failure I knew.”
Against all odds, the spunky single mother poured her energies into finishing the only work that mattered to her—a book about a boy wizard. However, the publishing world hadn’t caught up with her genius. Twelve publishers rejected her manuscript before a small London house picked up Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. And the rest is history.
Like Rowling, leaders and managers are all confronted with our own dark hours: equally traumatic, life-altering events. Some of us are unshakable in our belief that anything is possible if we find the courage to forge ahead. Others, however, can’t seem to escape the jaws of defeat.
For the past several years, I have been scrutinizing dozens of dark hours—precarious situations, as well as individual lives, spiraling out of control—and how talented people like Rowling refused to be trapped by them. Because personal stories are a lively and effective way to illustrate important points, I chose to examine a wide range of extraordinary individuals from history and contemporary life who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles. My heroes are as different as chalk and cheese. Former Hewlett-Packard chair and cancer patient Pattie Dunn beat the odds to restore her reputation—and her health. Spunky Joanne Boyle not only survived a life-threatening cerebral hemorrhage, but elevated her California women’s basketball team from oblivion to national prominence. Tarnished Time Warner ex-chairman Steve Case plotted his own miraculous comeback through an eclectic array of New Age businesses.
Chancellor Joel Klein took on the monumental challenge of trying to overhaul New York City’s long-embattled public schools. Coach Bill Snyder descended on another Manhattan—Kansas—to turn around college football’s losingest team. Similarly, world-renowned scientist and trailblazer Shirley Ann Jackson broke down racial barriers as the first African-American woman to receive a doctorate from M.I.T. and to lead a major research university, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Legendary Marine Gen. Chesty Puller, surrounded by overwhelming hoards of Red Chinese regulars, escaped the deadly fog of war at Korea’s Chosin Reservoir, so his troops could fight another day. Sacagawea was the lone Indian, the lone teenager, the lone mother on the Lewis and Clark expedition, one of the most foreboding journeys ever undertaken. Equally adventurous, Gary Guller became the first one-armed man to scale Mount Everest, while also leading the largest cross-disability group to its base camp, at 17,500 feet. Retired Navy Commander Scott Waddle fought to remove the stain of the USS Greeneville, which accidentally sank the Japanese fishing vessel Ehime Maru, killing nine people.
Whatever their route to success, these courageous and inspiring men and women prove that taking on a truly hellish situation is not necessarily a death sentence. Bright Triumphs From Dark Hours celebrates those who are able to face adversity—and transform near-defeat into a bright triumph. What I did learn from these relentless bravehearts? Here are six lessons for leaders and managers, exemplified by the individuals profiled in my book.
1. Learn From Adversity
“Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm,” said Winston Churchill, whose life was littered with disappointments. The Last Lion, as William Manchester called him, was the dominant personality of the last century. He understood that setbacks are inevitable when we pursue a bright triumph. What set him apart was his incredible grit. To Churchill, anything was possible. Victory was always at hand. Remember his words at Harrow: “Never give in!” he told students. “Never give in, never, never, never never!”
Like Churchill, the folks I have profiled refused to equate the occasional setback with defeat. They expected some dry spells along the way. Dark hours—let’s face it all are inevitable, and we can learn from them. Expect some dry spells—and move on.
2. Fashion a New Dream
Oftentimes, it’s necessary to recalibrate your dreams. Corporate titans, for example, inevitably make mistakes, new competitors emerge, new technologies and consumer habits disrupt established practices in unseen ways. When things begin to spiral downward, successful folks make the appropriate corrections. The alternative to grime-encrusted lenses isn’t rose-tinted glasses: It’s a healthy dose of reality.
3. Sell Your Vision
“A leader must be a dealer in hope,” Confucius wrote. Those who can illuminate the darkness are experts at restoring people’s faith in the future, especially the faith of talented people who have run into brick walls.
The golden core of leadership is the ability to raise aspirations. Transition is an ideal time to do so. Our intrepid adventurers are unflagging optimists. In many respects, this special species of leaders is “delusional,” according to veteran executive coach Marshall Goldsmith. “They are not as good as they think they are, but they have the confidence to pursue big things.”
So tune out the cynics and second-guessers who say you can’t beat the odds. Don’t let pouting pessimists rob you from pursuing—and capturing—your dreams.
4. Share Your Dream
“We can do as partners what we cannot do as singles,” Daniel Webster observed. Therefore, build alliances. In one example profiled in the book, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recruitment of outsider Joel Klein as the head of the city’s schools succeeded where a long line of predecessors had failed. The talented twosome—working together—used their close links to affluent New Yorkers to lure much-needed funds to their reform effort. These powerful allies, in turn, have been invaluable in helping turn around the Big Apple’s long-troubled school system.
So keep good company. Create a brain trust of people you can call on in tough times in dark hours. Share your dreams!
5. Focus, Focus, Focus
Make life as simple as possible. Focus on what you know you can do. Know what you’re capable of on any given day, what you can count on. Do the simple things well, and then use that confidence to forge your own bright triumph. Learn to differentiate between what is truly important and what can be dealt with at another time.
Technology giant Steve Case, now getting his second wind at Revolution, refuses to get sidetracked. He believes zeroing in on the endgame has led to his success in business and beyond. “Anything is possible,” he says, “but it all starts with having a dream and sticking with it through thick and thin.” People like Case possess a tenacity that eludes those who wilt in the face of adversity. They don’t let a few potholes in the road erode their confidence. They share a steadfast determination to secure a bright triumph.
6. Start Now
As Teddy Roosevelt said, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.
Let new ideas take root. Explore. Rattle hidebound thinking. Chuck yesterday’s assumptions. Don’t rely on what made you successful, but no longer works. The worst baggage we can carry is the baggage from a successful past.
Set goals that are specific and attainable, then break them down into manageable pieces—one step at a time. In the process, passing each milestone builds confidence and creates momentum. Self-confidence, in turn, develops much like a coral reef—layer on layer compresses into a solid base.
Don’t lose sight of your main goal by focusing on intermediate objectives. Take a wide-angle view of the challenge. As Gary Guller slogged his way up Mount Everest one painful step at a time, he never forgot the endgame: shattering stereotypes of the disabled. Summiting the top of the world was simply part of the process.
But don’t dillydally. “A degenerative disease will not be cured by procrastination,” said management guru Peter Drucker. “It requires decisive action.” Unlike sports, you can’t call for a time-out when things get rough. You must get out of the blocks quickly.
Remember the U.S. Navy Seals’ favorite slogan: “The only easy day was yesterday.” Properly scripted, tomorrow can become better than today.
Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives