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05.23.2014 Sharon Spano, Ph.D.

How Wise Leaders Handle Adversity: Part II

As I stated earlier this week, how wise leaders handle adversity is important to the success and sustainability of almost every organization.

In Part I, I discussed the first two coping skills that leaders use. Let’s now take a look at the additional four.

Coping Skill #3: Understanding that One Doesn't Have Control Over External Circumstances

The wise leader understands that attempting to take control over external circumstances that one has no power or authority over is a waste of time. Worrying about those same external circumstances makes even less sense.

Sometimes you have to accept what is before you can do anything about what isnt.

What I mean by this is that circumstances out of our control should be identified and understood from the proper perspective. When a leader is able to exercise this level of wisdom, he is no longer held captive by those circumstances. Rather, he now has the presence of mind to reinvent himself or the business.

I witnessed this process with many of my clients during the economic downturn of 2008. In keeping with our definition of wisdom as the capacity to balance that which is known and unknown with appropriate actions, the wisest leaders were able to assess the external circumstances, address the elements they did have control over, and then move forward based on the reality of an uncertain economic environment.

These leaders were not paralyzed by what might happen. Rather, they took charge of their own businesses and courageously asked and answered the hard questions. They then made strategic decisions on how to cope with the adversity of one of the worst recessions our nation as ever experienced.

Coping Skill #4: Accepting that Adversity is Part of Life

The wise leader accepts that adversity is part of life and business. Life is unpredictable and uncertain. Such a leader, then, is never fully surprised when challenges hit. Rather, she is ready, able, and willing to respond.

While this may sound simple enough, this mindset of acceptance allows the wise leader to quickly assess the situation, strategically tackle all the obstacles, and come up with immediate solutions when the need arises.

Let me describe a poignant example.

One of my clients shared a story about having to rise to another level of leadership during Hurricane Andrew. As the CEO of a very large provider of residential services to people with disabilities, he had to determine whether or not to evacuate their Miami facility.

This specific facility housed 120 people with severe disabilities. Most of these people were under strict medical care—virtually unable to do anything for themselves. And, Hurricane Andrew, one of the most devastating hurricanes to hit the Miami-Dade area, was forcefully bearing down on the immediate area.

The CEO was faced with an immediate ethical dilemma. County officials were instructing him to evacuate his people to the nearest hospital or safe house. Does he risk moving hundreds of vulnerable people to a facility that may not be able to meet their specific needs? Or, does he ask his own staff to risk their own safety and band together alongside him to weather the storm?

Adversity doesn't get more challenging than life or death choices. This CEO weighed out the options. After considerable deliberation, he decided to hunker down. The staff agreed. With a facility constructed from brick, and generators and life support systems in place, the team believed they had the facility, skill, and resources necessary to protect their clients.

While the decision to remain was not an easy one, this wise leader was so accustomed to the daily adversities of leading an organization faced with life and death choices, he was able to thoughtfully assess the situation and make the hard decision to stay.

I like to think of this example as leadership at its best. Every leader can make hard choices related to the bottom-line. Few leaders can step up to this level of integrity in the midst of such dire circumstances unless they accept and understand that adversity is part of the bigger game.

Coping Skill #5: Accepting that Death or Loss is Part of Life

The wise leader understands that some things are not good or bad. They just are.

Whether you’re in a leadership role or not, this is one coping skill that we all need at one time or another. No one is exempt from the experience of death or loss. We must learn to cope with the adversity associated with such losses.

For leaders, this is particularly important because people within the organization will experience loss. When a leader accepts that death and loss are part of life, she will make time to skillfully respond to those in need. Such meaningful responses produce loyalty. Loyalty is the glue that holds the team together when future adversities arise.

The wise leader, then, must know how to be relational and present in these scenarios such that he demonstrates empathy, respect, and compassion for what his people are going through.

Additionally, when the leader himself experiences such losses, he is often still required to honor his responsibilities to the organization. Business goes on. For a leader, there is often little time to fully mourn. Here again, loyalty will surface, allowing the leader to more fully experience the benevolence of a supporting team.

Coping Skills #6: Trust in the Benevolence of Others

A wise leader understands the power of this coping skill. Trust is a major component of any successful organization, but it must be nurtured. Leaders who trust in the goodness and kindness of others will develop a strong following because trust is a reciprocal process. Once I learn to trust, I also have the potential to become more trustworthy.

This level of trust is important in that adversity requires collaboration. Several of the wise leaders in my study extended the premise of trust beyond others to include God and trust in their own experience to overcome adversity.

Adversity, then, is viewed as a dynamic process that goes well beyond an event or a set of circumstances. When a leader is wise enough to trust his team, generate a collaborative approach to handling adversity, and perhaps even going so far as to rely on their own past experiences and/or the wisdom of God, the organization is quickly catapulted to the next level. The wise leader and his team is then more fully prepared to embrace, rather than avoid, adversity.

Q: What have you learned from coping with adversity?

[reminder]

For additional reading on wisdom and leadership, please consider the following resources:

Ardelt, M. (2005). How wise people cope with crisis and obstacles in life. ReVision 28(1), 7-1.
Pascual-Leone, J. (1990). An essay on wisdom: Toward organismic processes that make it  possible. In R. J. Sternberg (Ed.), Wisdom: Its nature, origins, and development (pp. 244-278). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press
Spano, S. L. (2013). Wisdom and leadership: A constructive-developmental perspective. ProQuest Dissertation and Theses database. (UMI 3603776).
Published by Sharon Spano, Ph.D. May 23, 2014