How To

Stay The Course During Turbulent Times

success adversity

If you are lucky, you will never experience a personal or professional setback. Unfortunately, they are often a part of life in project management. After years of research I have come up with eight crucial steps which the best type of leaders take when they are faced with real adversity:

1 Take control.

A paradox emerges here: the less things seem to be in control, the easier it is to take control over what is left. When we are in full control, we often face a surfeit of opportunities: do we invest in China or India or our home market, in new products or extending existing products?

Making decisions is hard: it is not clear what is best when you can choose from 20 options. When everything is grim, there are often very few options. This is when weaker leaders start to feel powerless. But if there is only one thing you can do, that is what you must do: do not worry about the things you cannot control.

2  Control your own feelings.

The CEO of a headhunting firm talks about ‘wearing the mask of leadership’. He learned that getting angry is pointless. If you are angry or upset, your little cloud of gloom will spread like a major depression across the rest of the office.

If you remain positive, you have a chance that your team will remain positive: moods are infectious, especially the leader’s mood. Separate the event from your reaction: just because an event is bad, it does not mean you are required to be angry or upset.

3  Stay positive. Research with American prisoners of war found that those who survived had a strong ‘will to prevail’. This finding echoed that of Victor Frankl who survived the concentration camps and did research on others who survived.

Believe that you can find a way through and that adversity is your defining moment where you will grow and learn. Look back at your own career. What have been the times you remember most and grew the most, when you had the chance to shine and make a difference?

4  Gain perspective.

This is a staple of the positive psychology movement, and it works. It is about counting your blessings not just looking at problems. I learned this after a tough research trip in the bush. I returned to civilization: a hotel with a corrugated iron roof and a barbed wire fence. I fell asleep in a filthy bed.

The next morning I woke up to two miracle in two minutes: first, I turned a tap and cold running water came out. I did not have to walk three kilometers to collect water from a muddy river.

I then turned another tap and warm water came out: I did not need to collect firewood and warm the water myself. Waking up to two miracles every day makes every day a great day: how many daily miracles do you enjoy every day?

5  Draw on experience.

Ask yourself three simple questions:

  • Where have I met something like this before: what worked and what did not work?
  • Have I seen other people deal with this before, successfully or otherwise? What can I learn from that?
  • What would my mentor/role model do in this situation?

6  Use humour.

At Teach First, which I co-founded, we created the Cock-Up Club: we would invite eminent business people to talk about their business, but instead of their normal propaganda we asked them to talk about the biggest cock-up they were responsible for in their career.

We soon discovered that behind every glittering career there are fantastic disasters. The road to success is built on potholes of disaster, and you cannot avoid them all.

7 Be adaptable. Mike Tyson, the world heavyweight boxing champion for many years, said: ‘Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.’ The best leaders are totally fixed about their end goal, but completely flexible about how they get there. You cannot sail straight into the wind: you have to tack and gybe to make any progress.

8 Get help. Lone heroes may save the world, frequently, in the movies. Back in the real world, lone heroes become dead heroes fast. Do not carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. Reach out for help and advice.

As a coach I see clients struggling with apparently impossible burdens. They then talk for a while and they discover the answer: I do not have a magic box full of instant solutions. Instead, just the act of talking helps clients to develop perspective, find alternatives and create options.

Jo Owen is a best-selling and multi-award winning leadership author, keynote speaker and social entrepreneur. This article includes an extract from The Mindset of Success by Jo Owen ©2017 and has been reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.

Jo Owen
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