How Wise Leaders Handle Adversity: Part 1

May 20, 2014

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How leaders handle adversity is vital to the success and sustainability of any organization. In a rapidly changing global economy, leaders must be able to make rapid-fire decisions in the midst of dire situations.

Wisdom is required. The problem is wisdom is a slippery slope.

Not all leaders have wisdom. If you consider yourself wise, chances are, you’re not. You see, wise leaders embody humility. They don’t perceive themselves as wise even though other people might describe them as such.

My doctoral work focused on wisdom, leadership, and something called Constructive-Developmental Theory. It’s a big word that simply means I’m interested in how people develop. How do they make sense of their world?

I discovered quickly enough that studying wisdom was like trying to catch 1,000 butterflies over 10,000 years. Since the beginning of time, man has been in search of wisdom. For all our efforts over decades of time, we still don’t have a definitive understanding of what wisdom actually is.

What we do know is that wisdom is important. It matters.

For purposes of my work, I’m defining wisdom as the capacity to balance that which is known and unknown with appropriate actions that encompass ethical and social consideration for the greater good of all.

If you’re a leader, you’re balancing what is known with what is unknown on a daily basis. Hopefully, you’re also taking into consideration what is best for all major stakeholders.

In today’s economic environment, you’re probably facing adversity on a pretty consistent basis. Let me boldly suggest, however, that if you’re not seeking wisdom in the midst of all this, you’re probably doomed for failure.

Wisdom and Adversity

The psychological research on wisdom clearly indicates the importance of examining adversity within the context of wisdom.

While not all adversity leads to greater levels of wisdom, what we know is that the ability to cope with crisis and hardship may not only be a hallmark of wise individuals, it may also be one of the pathways to wisdom.

Our ability to gain wisdom from adversity, however, greatly depends on how we choose to make meaning of the situation.

Adversity can be expressed as any negative misfortune or crisis that results in calamity or distress for the individual or the organization. Depending on the meaning-making system of the leader, to include perception, interpretation, and levels of wisdom, even a minor infraction can be viewed as adversity.

One clear aspect of adversity is that it is part of the human experience. How leaders maneuver their way through such moments of adversity or misfortune, e.g., the economic decline of 2008, is often determined by their theological, philosophical, or psychological approach to life.

Research, my own included, indicates that wise leaders effectively handle adversity by engaging in at least six active coping skills:

Coping Skill #1: Reframing the Situation

Wise leaders know how to reframe the situation to make the best of it. For example, one leader might view an economic decline as disastrous whereas another leader would acknowledge the decline, yet reframe it as an opportunity to invent new products and services.

Reframing is a key element in a leader’s ability to walk through adversity in that the wise leader has the mental capacity to view adversity from multiple perspectives, to learn from the current situation, and to adapt to new and innovative ways to move forward.

More importantly, the wise leader understands that how he thinks about the situation is as important, if not more so, than the situation itself.

Coping Skill #2: Taking Control of the Situation

Wise leaders know how to take action in the most adverse of circumstances. In keeping with my working definition of wisdom, they first rely on what is known (the facts, moral code, expertise, life experience). This level of understanding and self-awareness is then balanced with what is unknown (future events, global and economic uncertainty, unforeseen outcomes).

Most of the leaders in my study stated that they were able to take control of an adverse situation because they trusted in either their own experience or had faith in God that things would work out. Because they had a commitment to “doing the right thing,”they felt empowered to take control of the situation.

Interesting enough, taking control was less about exercising power and authority. More often than not, these leaders described the adversity as a humbling experience that caused them to look deep and hard at who they were as leaders. This reflection often resulted in their coming to value and appreciate their support team in more meaningful ways.

The wise leader, then, understands the value of a collaborative approach to adversity and yet is not afraid to make the hard decisions along the way. The leader who demands ultimate power and authority will most likely walk alone when adversity strikes.

Stay tuned for Part II of How Leaders Handle Adversity.

Q:  What coping skills have you used to overcome adversity?