Last November our country reflected on the 50th Anniversary of the Kennedy assassination and its impact on the nation. Written records, interviews, and previously unreleased footage reminded us of a time that began with great hope and ended with numbing despair. Listening to the interviews of those who lived through it, I found myself reflecting on an experience from my own history; an experience which coupled with my mother’s wisdom taught me a fundamental lesson in leadership.
I was college age when I first encountered racism face to face. My parents did what I believe was an exceptional job helping me understand what I might face in the world outside of our home. Nevertheless, when I experienced it no amount of discussion could have fully prepared me for what it would feel like to be judged solely on the color of my skin.
When I consider the events of that day, I am still amazed at the indelible imprint it made on my thinking. Equally as amazing were the variety of responses of my friends; some wanting to get a group together and take physical action, others wondering how something so ugly could happen to someone of whom they cared so deeply, while some were simply at a loss for words. An even more interesting response came from a group of officials who instead of doing something, dismissed the activity as “locals being locals,” with no real intent to harm. It was, however, my mother’s response that provided the most lasting impression. Her response put adversity in perspective; then and now.
A few days after explaining to her what happened, I received a card in the mail. Inside of the card she had written the following African proverb:
“A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor”
Few words have ever been so simple, yet profound. Few have been more timely and impactful. Embedded in that message was both compassion, and encouragement; a reminder that although I was in pain, I had to dust myself off and get back in the game.
As one of the first African-Americans to integrate her high school, my mother understood the impact these events could have. Having lived through the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., she knew this was a pivotal moment in my life. She had seen a mix of responses from the disenfranchised; some driven to despair and anger, while others rose above the fray. That simple African proverb was her way of saying, this is what I have been trying to teach you and now that you are facing it head on, how you respond will determine its impact.
So here’s the Straight Talk…
Leadership involves facing adversity and it is the navigation of this adversity that shapes us, sharpens our resolve, and makes us skillful sailors. Whether it is addressing a poor performing team member, executing organizational change, or dealing with someone who just threw you under the bus, adversity can serve as the fuel that propels you to greater heights by simultaneously helping you develop both the competency and the heart to be an effective leader.
So consider this perspective, leading and adversity are inseparable therefore…
EXPECT IT: Although you may be surprised at its origin, do not be surprised you are facing it; especially when you are pushing yourself and your team toward greatness. Set clearly defined outcomes, work with your team to create a path of execution, then brace for any adversity that may come your way; living with the recognition that adversity comes with the territory.
EXPLORE IT: “Life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards.” These words from the philosopher Kierkegaard, provide the perfect framework when dealing with adversity. Face it head on, then when it is over, look back and make note of any lessons learned. Ask questions such as: What would you do differently if this situation came up again? Did you in anyway contribute to the difficulty you faced? Are there any preventive steps you can take to decrease the chances this will happen again?
EMBRACE IT: Irrespective of how you respond, adversity is a great teacher. Embracing adversity doesn’t mean you have to like it, rather it means you recognize its long term value. In the words of Nietzsche (or singer Kelly Clarkson), “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”