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Adversity and resilience can become leadership assets

When does adversity lead to helplessness and defeat, and when does it spark high achievement?

At a recent lunch, a widely respected physician (I’ll call him Greg) told me about his upbringing in a rough East Cleveland neighborhood. The family’s house was so small that his bed was the living room couch, which actually bordered the kitchen.

Because of his parents’ arguing and drinking, Greg couldn’t find much peace in the house. Amid the disruptions, he persevered in his studies and made it to medical school.

Greg says the challenges of his early years prepared him for his work as a trauma surgeon.

“As a kid, I was the most stable person in my family,” he said. “I learned early on how to be depended on, how to maintain composure when everyone else was out of control.”

Disadvantage and privilege
My conversation with Greg got me wondering how it is that some people who grow up in disadvantaged circumstances figure out how to succeed in life.

On the flip side, how do some who grow up in privileged surroundings, with stable parents and a host of advantages, experience a series of downward spirals that leaves them incapacitated, entitled or out of control?

Although complex, these questions beg to be seriously pondered.

Why? Because despite the thousands of books written each year on the topic of leadership, we still don’t know what circumstances produce good leaders. How people respond to adversity might have more to do with leadership than many believe.

Greg is an award-winning physician and highly effective leader who somehow benefited from childhood hardship. Growing up in a chaotic family does not usually produce leaders like him. So what explains Greg’s phenomenal success?

The example of Lincoln
A more famous example might shed light on this question.

Abraham Lincoln won enduring admiration after unsavory beginnings and a life punctuated by hardship. In addition to a dirt-poor childhood, Lincoln’s deficits might best be summed up by the words of William Herndon, his third law partner:

“He was a homely man, plain-looking and plain-acting. He had no pomp, display, or dignity, so-called. His melancholy dripped from him as he walked. His apparent gloom created sympathy for him … I do not think he knew what real joy was for many years. … The perpetual look of sadness was his most prominent feature.”

Does this downtrodden, almost pitiful portrayal reflect a man you would trust to navigate the acrimonious issue of slavery, calm the threat of secession by Southern states, and resolve the deadliest war ever fought on U.S. soil?

Could a sad-looking, sympathy-garnering character like Lincoln ever get elected president in the modern world?

A pattern of resilience
Greg, the physician I described above, and Abraham Lincoln both hail from challenging personal circumstances. A closer look at their lives and careers reveals a common capacity that propelled their success: resilience.

It’s tempting to suppose that adversity is a precursor to strong leadership. But it’s not the adversity that foments achievement, it’s an individual’s response to adversity—their degree of resilience.

Resilience, the ability to bounce back after a setback, is an emotional muscle that grows stronger with use. The more frequent and intense the adversity—situations where one is under fire, facing a formidable foe or suffering with hardship—the more one’s resilience is tested and fortified.

Note the strong relationship between adversity and resilience. Without adversity, our resilience muscles atrophy. If life is too comfortable, we never practice “bouncing back.”  If we never fail or lose, we miss the confidence-building experience of coming from behind to win. If we always get our way and everything we touch turns to gold, we too easily become spoiled or entitled.

Many leaders I know can identify closely with adversity and resilience in their own lives.

Preventing adversity
Ironically, those same leaders who have tempered their resilience in the fires of adversity often prevent the people around them from a similar privilege.

Why, at the first sign of adversity, do so many parents remove their children from potentially character-strengthening hardships? I’m not talking about true dangers like drug addiction and loaded guns, I’m referring to routine challenges like completing assignments, keeping promises, doing chores and earning money.

In a similar vein, why would a leader hesitate to hold an employee accountable, gingerly sidestep a difficult conversation with a partner or refuse to fire an unproductive manager?

Promoting resilience
If you want to help your children and employees grow, consider these steps for promoting resilience:

  •  Scrutinize your own assumptions about discomfort and adversity. Do you believe that people can grow from pain and hardship?
  •  Notice that individuals vary in their capacity to bounce back from adversity. Less mature people have low tolerance levels for difficult circumstances. More mature individuals can take more challenge.
  •  Recognize that not all adversity is the same. The trauma of losing a child is not the same as living in a noisy neighborhood. The more intense the trauma, the more difficult it is to summon resilience.
  •  Set the bar higher than what your employee or child is used to, and observe what happens. Operate more with faith than with worry, and learn about others’ capacities to handle challenges. View complaints and other low-maturity responses as coaching opportunities.
  •  Take a hard look at your tendency to rescue, save, protect and “help.” Unnecessary assistance keeps people from developing strong resilience.

John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at [email protected]

1/29/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected]

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