From adversity to success

“The bend in the road is not the end of the road unless you refuse to take the turn.”

In our line of work I am often impressed how some of the executives we meet are able to overcome enormous adversity that others have found debilitating. They seem to come back stronger than ever, absorbing life’s “body blows”, rising above them and finding a way to change course and move on to bigger and better things. The last several years, especially through the global financial crisis, have highlighted these traits and a particular type of individual – they are the ones who have been focusing on what has gone wrong, and have persistently driven themselves and their employers forward to succeed through their positive outlook, optimism and focus on long-term goals rather than these short–term setbacks.

So how do they do it? One theory is that they seemly look at failure differently. These theories reinforce the notion that these setbacks, humiliations or disappointing outcomes are not only overcome, but are in fact a catalyst for their future success. They often patiently reflect on what has occurred, quickly adapting to what they learn and taking the necessary steps to overcome what often others see as an insurmountable mountain to climb. This “post-traumatic growth”, as it is sometimes called, is often used as an opportunity to make a course correction and come back stronger and better prepared with complete optimism about their future, rather than letting the strong emotions and fears engulf them.

Further, the executive does not see the setback as defining their life, but rather an experience to be embraced, absorbed and surprisingly welcomed. They understand what they are feeling and do not take stakeholder and performance scrutiny personally, even when others try to make it so. Most importantly, they address it and adapt quickly, “closing the door” on the crisis thus minimizing its damage, and take decisive action to move forward. These leaders have quickly defined a strategy and reinforced their personal accountability and commitment to leading through the crisis with objectivity. This reaction often leads to positive direction change and gives the individual opportunities to reflect on their personal priorities, be it around their faith, family or foundation. Also, by quickly facing the inevitable insecurity that results from these setbacks and moving forward with positivity, they discover things about themselves and actually embrace the experience.

Resilient executives are also masters at using these challenging situations to reinforce relationships and build social support for their challenge. The American Psychological Association’s “The Road to Resilience” suggests this approach increases one’s capacity to cope. By surrounding themselves with people who are willing to support and help them, there is the opportunity to gain additional perspective, identify new solutions or simply explore their emotions to understand them better. By seeking and accepting this feedback from others they believe one’s resilience and one’s sense of purpose is actually strengthened and becomes an important contributor to one’s recovery, optimism and success.

Finally, they retain their belief that they are in control of their own destiny. A study at the University of Michigan confirmed this notion, finding that one of the most dependable predictors of positive thinking is an individual’s sense of being in control of one’s own life. They accept the realization that they may never fully understand what occurred, but this does not mean that their future is out of their control. They quickly compartmentalize the components, identifying what is open to change, and move past those items that are outside of their control. This confidence in their own abilities and trusting that they control the path forward is clearly pivotal to achieving these attitudinal turnarounds and starting on a realistic plan to achieve positive outcomes.

These observations vastly oversimplify a complex subject. However, it is a worthwhile thought-starter to help us all explore the relationship that resilience has with success through adversity. At Egon Zehnder International we have studied what it means to have true CEO potential, and resilience and resolve are clearly key components of these criteria. This becomes particularly important given the current business landscape and the unpredictable leadership journey many executives will inevitably face in the years ahead.