Finding Leadership in Adversity

What we need as a leader is what we rarely want.

It’s always struck me as kind of funny the relationship we have with adversity — It’s something we need, but none of us want.

If someone had walked up to me and offered me a Cancer diagnosis and promised it would make me a better person and leader; I would have politely declined.

Maybe navigating my way through major industrial accidents, medical emergencies, business restructures, cyclones, wildfires, floods, blistering heat or sub-zero temperatures? — No thanks.

I have made countless mistakes, multiple failures and got it wrong as often as I get it right.

Throw in a Spanish COVID Lockdown experience for good measure and you may get a flavour of just some (no kidding) of the adversity in my life over the last decade or so.

Once again, some of it I succeeded at, some of it I didn’t.

Here’s the thing: the sum of it all equals me, and I am a better person and leader for it.

The fascinating thing is how often we overlook the critical learnings that we have taken from these great challenges in our lives. How we are conditioned to focus on success and keep our failures as dirty little secrets that we’d prefer to forget about.

My experience with adversity has taught me it is a “growth opportunity” — it is not something that we learn from a specific qualification or certification. It takes time and reflection for the opportunity within to present itself. From a development perspective it is invaluable, nothing develops better than adversity.

There is no degree, certificate or course that will come close.

If I cast my mind back a few weeks to a slip down some stairs which sent me to hospital and put the breaks on my next marathon; there was no way I was happily embracing adversity at the bottom of those stairs. Instead, it took a few days to digest what this new challenge in my life meant. I then adapted and used the time to focus on my leadership coaching, instead of all the hours running on the trails.

When I was told I had Cancer, it seemed like a disaster; in the long run it was anything but.

When we take these thoughts and apply them to the qualities of a leader things start to line up.

The Ability to Adapt to change, Empathy for others, Perseverance, Vulnerability, and Integrity are all Leadership Traits mentioned in most study and courses; but they are forged in adversity. When you live and breathe that experience, and establish an emotional charge around it — it is literally hard-wired into your DNA — you don’t forget.

The secret is to take the time to reflect on your own experience with adversity and leverage it into your leadership skill-set. There are many leaders and aspiring leaders who are not yet consciously aware of the leadership traits they have gained through the tough times in their life, because they are hell bent on success and creating a positive image of themselves.

Are you a Cancer Survivor? Did you lose a job and then bounce back? Did you fail at something and then learn from it?

I urge you to join the dots between your own experience with adversity, and the leadership traits you have taken from it. Once you have created an awareness around these traits, you are better placed to use them in your leadership career or aspirations.

To summarise I want to reinforce three critical learnings:

1. Cast your mind back to a great challenge in your life, or a time you experienced adversity — however unwanted it may have been at the time — what are three strengths or leadership traits you have taken from it?

2. Know your story and put just as much emphasis on the failures as the success — writing this down (or even a blog if you are brave enough!) — can be helpful in being able to articulate your own journey and how adversity has shaped you as a leader, this is really powerful for interview candidates.

3. When you are experiencing adversity of any kind, make sure at some point when the time is right — take the time to reflect — where is the opportunity? — what have you learned? How is it contributing to your leadership story?

It all adds up to a formidable Leadership skill-set that is so often overlooked, in the pursuit of perfection.

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