Adversity Reveals You

“In times of adversity and change, we really discover who we are and what we’re made of.”
Howard Schultz, CEO, Starbucks

How you lead during times of adversity reveals you. Your leadership strengths are highlighted and your leadership flaws are accentuated.
Adversity is in the eyes of the beholder—it can be as small as a difficult employee or customer interaction or as large as a major lay-off or legal challenge. Regardless, how you behave under stress says a lot about your overall leadership.
It is easy to lead during the good times. While obstacles still exist, leaders tend to have the resources (time, people, money) to overcome them. It’s when times get tough that you really need to demonstrate your leadership skills. What leadership strengths or weaknesses do you reveal during times of adversity? What do your employees and colleagues say about you when things are stressful? These are the things I often hear about the “boss” when I work with clients:

  • “Stay out of his office today, he’s in a bad mood.”
  • “She just bit my head off and didn’t even listen to me.”
  • “He’s just covering his own *** and trying to blame everyone else.”

If you think you are ever guilty of the above, here are five tips to remember when faced with adversity or dealing with a stressful situation:

  1. Integrity first. Never allow your character to come into question. When faced with adversity (large or small), your integrity must never be compromised. Period.
  2. Seek out and focus on facts. Adversity often evokes emotional responses in ourselves and others. Don’t ignore the emotion, but sort through it to find the facts. Seek to problem solve versus place blame. When things go wrong, there are often two problems to solve: the immediate situation that needs to be corrected/resolved and a process or procedure that would have helped avoid the problem in the first place. Start with the problem at hand to resolve the burning issue and then move to correct the overall situation so it doesn’t happen again.
  3. Ask questions, avoid assumptions. Part of fact-finding is taking the time to ask questions and explore what is really going on. Don’t jump to premature conclusions and avoid unhelpful natural impulses—making excuses, blowing things out of proportion, responding defensively. Start by assuming good intent (i.e., that whatever happened wasn’t due to ill intentions). This establishes a positive context and sets the stage for a more productive approach to resolving the issue.
  4. Think big picture and down board. Get in the habit of thinking about implications and potential consequences. “What happens next if we do this?” “What are the implications if we move forward with this solution?” “How will this decision impact the organization, customers, employees, other stakeholders, etc.?”
  5. Know yourself. I coached a leader who was regularly accused of “losing his cool” and taking things out on employees. Something would trigger an emotional response and he responded in a way that he regretted later (e.g., overreacted, screamed at others, sent out emails to a wide distribution list instead of addressing the situation one-on-one).

It is helpful to know your trigger points or emotional hot buttons. A useful exercise is to identify the trigger(s), followed by a typical and preferred response. This helps you prepare for the next time the hot button is pushed.

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