Leadership in the face of adversity

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The crucible of great leadership is adversity.

Many iconic leaders across the world (Mandela, Churchill, Shackleton) have built their reputations by leading others through seemingly intractable situations. Most businesses now face a period of high uncertainty and difficulty. Your own leadership capabilities are likely to be tested in the months ahead, wherever you sit in your organisation.

Through the crazy times of Covid-19, I suspect many of us can recall examples of great leadership, but it would be fair to say that we also saw leadership at its worst (note: swallowing Dettol will not kill a virus, Mr Trump!). In normal times the continuum of good and bad leadership may not seem so pronounced, but when the going gets tough the difference is polarising. Why is that? When business is booming, and positivity is in the air, leaders have a lot less pressure on them than they do when things are not going as swimmingly. The way a business owner or a chief executive responds to adversity sets the tone for the entire workforce and has the power to either galvanise employees into action or strike fear and uncertainty into their hearts. What we have learned from Covid-19 is that adversity will come at you from anywhere and often at a pace that you cannot control. Though you cannot always control the adverse conditions you are faced with, you can control your reaction to them through resiliency. Resilience is your ability to withstand, recover and grow in the face of adversity.  Resiliency is what you need when everything blows up in your face.   

What makes a truly resilient and authentic leader during adversity? A true leader will not panic, they will stay focussed on what matters and is most important to them and the team. They have a knack for taking adversity, dealing with it, and looking for hidden opportunities. True leaders understand challenges are everywhere and remain flexible when the unexpected happens. They then take charge and keep everyone moving forward. Often, they lead by example and from the front – which means they set a benchmark for employees to follow.    

Resilience however is not something that everyone automatically has in their tool kit. Emotional resilience is a learnable skill, one which helps us recover faster from setbacks.

Here are a few tips on how you can build resilience:

  • Embrace change – resilient leaders try to look around and ahead and develop situational awareness.
  • Learn from failure and have a growth mindset – often out of tough times, comes mental toughness.  Failure is never the end of the road for leaders with resilience.
  • Stay positive – It is hard to be a resilient leader when you are a pessimist! Research shows that a positive outlook helps us overcome those feelings of failure in the first place. Resilient leaders are not afraid to take risks when the situation calls for it.  Instead of being overwhelmed with despair and fear, they use optimism or relaxation to manage their stress; then think about changing their approach.

We can never truly know what lies around the corner and any business will no doubt have to encounter numerous roadblocks. Covid19 will not be the last adverse situation we have to deal with.  In the immortal words of Winston Churchill “success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”.  Keep going and never, never, never give up!

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About Author

Senga Allen

Human Resource Specialist and Managing Director, Everest People. Waikato and BOP people and culture specialists. www.everestpeople.co.nz