'The Rambo types are the first to die.'
Choosing to manage failure well is critical to expand commanding leadership skills. Yet, it is insufficient. Every leader encounters significant adversity throughout his or her career. How they choose to confront these hardships greatly determines their success.
Do you know any leaders who have been struck down by adversity and struggled to get back on their feet? Benedict Arnold, a traitor during the American Revolution, comes to my mind. He was actually a brilliant general in the Continental Army until he was blindsided by injury and insult. He handled it by turning his back on his country. Contrast that approach with those who seem to handle tough times like a rubber ball, bouncing back in record time. Former President Jimmy Carter recovered from his devastating 1980 reelection loss to Ronald Reagan by building the Carter Center and winning the Nobel Peace Prize. What's the difference between these leaders?
Diane Coutu, senior editor at Harvard Business Review, has studied Holocaust survivors, resilient children, and business leaders who bounce back. (1) According to Coutu, the most resilient individuals choose to:
1. Accept of reality.
2. Value meaning.
1. Accept of reality. In his book Good to Great, author Jim Collin interviewed Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was held prisoner and tortured by the Vietcong for eight years. He asked Stockdale, "Who didn't make it out of the prisoner camps?" The leader responded, "Oh, that's easy, the optimists. They were the ones who said we are going to be out by Christmas. And then they said we'd be out by Easter, then the Fourth of July, then by Thanksgiving, and then it was Christmas again." Stockdale added, "They died of a broken heart." (2).
Commanding leaders choose responsibly by seeing reality the way it is and having faith that it will get better. That's what Collins calls the Stockdale paradox. The sun will come out, but probably not tomorrow.
This is the approach Gene Dimon chose to take when he was fired as president of Citigroup by then chairman Sandy Weill following 16 years of collaboration. Dimon scanned the already-prepared press releases and understood that the board agreed with Weill. He saw reality staring him in the face and walked out. A year and a half later, he took over the job of CEO at Bank One.
2. Value meaning. When we struggle, we try to make sense out of the struggle. We search for meaning. Coutu’s research shows that choosing a strong value system provides successful organizations and individuals meaning, especially during tough times. These values offer a way to interpret what is going on and how to act. Look how the self-serving values of the Benedict Arnold (e.g., arrogance, prideful, angry…) compare to the servant-leader values of Jimmy Carter (e.g., caring, compassionate, humanitarian…).
As an educator, one of my strong values is learning. So, when adversity strikes me, I search for meaningful lessons. I'll ask questions such as, What could I learn from this? How can this help me grow? How might this situation serve others?
3. Improvise. Leaders who thrive in adversity have options. The delivery company UPS considers improvisation a core skill. They empower their drivers to "do whatever it takes to deliver packages on time." This is exactly what they did one day after hurricane Andrew devastated southeast Florida in 1992. People were living in shelters and their cars because their homes had been reduced to rubble. Yet that didn’t stop the UPS drivers from delivering packages to these desperate, homeless people.
Laurence Gonzales concluded that versatility, the ability to perceive what's really happening and adapt to it, is critical to surviving life-threatening circumstances after he studied thousands who survived wilderness accidents. (3)
Which of these three can help you?
1. Diane Coutu; How Resilience Works, Harvard Business Review, May 2002, 46 - 55.
2. Jim Collins; Good to Great, HarperCollins, New York, NY, 2001, page 85.
3. Gonzalez L: Deep Survival - Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. W. W. Norton: New York, 2003, page 279.