Three Ways Great Leaders Handle Great Adversity
How To Be At Your Best When Life Is At Its Worst
“No matter how bad things are, you can always make things worse.” —Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture
When Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch learned that he had terminal cancer, he decided to make his final lecture about the most important lessons he’d learned in his life.
When things were at their worst, he found a way to create something beautiful, and his clear and thoughtful delivery left his family—and all of us—a timeless treasure.
As he eloquently put it, “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”
So, how do great leaders play the bad cards they are dealt?
The most resilient, impressive leaders I know have found ways to be courageous in the face of great adversity; life challenges lift them up instead of knock them down.
Here are three techniques I’ve seen my most resilient mentors use successfully when faced with “a bad hand”:
1. I wonder, what will this teach me?
In the year 1648, poet Robert Herrick wrote in Hesperides, “If little labour, little our gains: Man’s fate is according to his pains.” In 1982, actress Jane Fonda and the exercise company Soloflex simplified this message with: “No pain, no gain.”
The people who have learned to look at challenges as valuable teaching moments are the wisest and strongest leaders I know.
How do they convert pain into personal value?
First, they understand that pain is always a temporary condition and an opportunity to learn. They ask questions like, “How did I get here?” and “What caused this to happen?” They choose curiosity over self-pity or anger.
Then they generously share their learning and experience with their friends. They commit to making the most of the opportunity for themselves and others.
The next time you’re faced with a particularly brutal challenge, ask yourself what you may learn from it.
2. Reinvent your future—constantly.
“We must reinvent a future free of blinders so that we can choose from real options.” —David Suzuki, academic and activist
Choice is the enemy of fear. When you have choices, you don’t feel trapped by your circumstances. We all have plenty of choices, but the most resilient leaders are masters at reminding themselves of this fact in the face of adversity.
When you are faced with a seemingly horrible situation, start by answering these questions:
- What is the outcome I most want?
- What other outcomes would be good as well?
- What stands in my way from making these outcomes happen?
- Who do I know that has overcome similar obstacles to those that stand in my way?
3. Don’t get furious; get humorously curious.
“Some people see the glass as half full. Others see it half empty. I see a glass that’s twice as big as it needs to be.” —George Carlin
My friend Paul Landraitis loves to exclaim, “Fascinating!” whenever a particularly troubling or unexpected situation arises. What’s inspiring to me is that he does so with a laugh, choosing to look at every challenge through the lens of curiosity and humor.
I have a similar refrain when people ask me, “How’s it going?” (when it’s not going very well). I laugh and say, “I’ve never felt more ALIVE!”
Humor helps you think more broadly and creatively. It is absolutely essential for the best problem solving, so work not to take yourself, or your situation, too seriously.
You may even ask your friends the question, “Can you tell me a few things that are ridiculously funny about this particular problem I am facing?”
When they answer, listen for nuggets of truth and avenues for solutions and possibilities you may not have ever considered.
One last thought.
I often wonder if the challenge I am so distracted by today is going to make a bit of difference to me when I am old and gray.
Likely not. Here’s to wisdom.
Article originally published Nov. 26, 2013, on Forbes.com