Adversity Breeds True Leadership…Period!

Tags: Coaching, Leadership, Leadership Worth Sharing Blog, Podcasts

My mom was a great leader. She was a farm girl. Never had a diploma to her name. Had 10 kids by the time she was 32. And passed away by the time she was 42. I was 12.

But within that time frame, she managed to bring 8 of her 10 kids out of war-torn Viet Nam, with nothing but the clothes on our backs and two bags of clothes in hand. The youngest was one month old, the oldest was 13. I was 4 1/2. Without speaking a word of English, she managed to get us sponsored to come to the United States. With no formal education, she cleaned offices by night and cleaned schools by day. All that, and she managed to get us to school, provide food on the table, and a roof over our heads.

She was a great leader. Not because of her training or education, but because of her “get-it-done” behavior in the face of what most would consider insurmountable challenges.

Are Leaders Born or Are They Made?

Like the old adage of what comes first, the chicken or the egg . . . comes the other ‘golden nugget’ question: Are leaders born or are they made? I’m not going to brow beat you with data to prove my point, but I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that leaders are made! But I must caution you, this is the point where many so called “leadership trainers and educators” have it ALL wrong.

You see, just because leaders can be made doesn’t mean you can “teach” leadership. Just like the millions of self help books out there, there are millions of great “how to” leadership books, as well. But are we surrounded by millions of great leaders? I don’t know about you, but the answer is a resounding “no” for me! 

You might ask, “Why is this so?” Is it because the content is horrible? Is it because the teachers, coaches and leadership experts don’t know how to teach or transfer knowledge? Are high-level university and leadership programs selling you snake oil? Of course not!

But I do believe that many are not being absolutely transparent with you about leadership. And that is…not everyone is cut out to be a great leader. Sure, they can learn all the skills, take all the courses, and put in all of the time to know what they need to know. But knowledge alone does NOT make a great leader.

The Secret Ingredient to Leadership

The secret ingredient to making a great leader is adversity. It tests us. It challenges us. It separates the men from the boys.

Folks, great leadership is borne of learning how to overcome adversity. Learning how to deal with it. Learning how not to give up if you are faced with it. It’s about having the courage to fall on your face, step out of your comfort zone, be scared, feel absolutely un-comfortable and anxious . . . but still perform. This is truly, truly what creates and distinguishes great leaders.

Look at the adverse life of an Abraham Lincoln . . . who lost his whole family. Examine the life of a Gandhi . . . who was pushed out of a train because of his ethnicity. Look at a Rosa Parks . . . who refused to move to the back of the bus. Or a Thomas Edison . . . who refused to allow 10,000 failures stop him from inventing the light bulb. The list is endless, but the commonality is obvious. It is through adversity that great leaders are made. Because like my mom, what we do with these adverse situations determines whether or not we will become great leaders.

Stepping Up Regardless of the Challenge

I often get clients who are very uncomfortable when faced with adverse, challenging situations in their work environment. I have NO problem with them being uncomfortable. In fact, I would be shocked if they weren’t. There is nothing fun about challenging situations, but that doesn’t remove the fact that we must tackle and overcome them.

When it comes to truly becoming a leader however, we must NOT allow those adverse situations to cause us to run from them. We must confront them and tackle them until they are resolved. It’s not only important for the situation that they get resolved, but vital to you growing and becoming a true leader. Show me someone who faces adversity head on, and I’ll show you somebody who is well set on his or her path to becoming a great leader.


Candidly, not many are willing to take on this charge. It’s too uncomfortable and takes some people out of their comfort zone. Over the years, I’ve worked with teams or individuals who don’t exhibit the willingness to work through tough situations. I’ve come to quickly recognize the signs and realize there is not much hope for long term success despite how painful the situation may be for the team. Sure, I can help while I’m there. But it becomes more of a “hand-holding” exercise than something transformational and sustainable.

Leadership Is Action

So what does this mean for you if you are trying to “grow” in your leadership? It’s simple. If you are simply just reading a book or taking a program – no matter how highly touted it might be – there is a very high likelihood that there will be NO transference or personal transformation if you don’t also apply this knowledge, again and again, through ALL of the adverse situations you face from here on out.

How do you do this? The bottom line is you have to care. You have to have passion about it. Your WHY has to be strong enough to pull you through, motivate you. Adversity and adverse situations in the form of company politics, people, personal issues, life balance, finances, relationships and many, many other situations can be absolutely debilitating indeed. But you know what, nobody gets a “get out of jail free” card from them, nobody.

So I’m not asking you to avoid them. That would be impossible. I’m asking you to “kill two birds with one stone,” stay the course, be vigilant, and overcome them. You’ll not only be at peace in the long run, you’ll be a great leader.

Your Leadership Challenge

For You: We all have an adverse situation going on in our life right now, personal or professional. Be vigilant in overcoming it knowing that it’s the only way to true peace in the long run.

For Your Leadership Growth, in general: Stop depending so much on the “right” book or the “right” program. While these provide great insight and knowledge, there is NO magic bullet for leadership! Instead, embrace the fact that you MUST overcome and tackle any/all adverse situations if you are going to become a true leader! Act like a leader . . . tackle and resolve the hard challenges . . . and help others do the same. These are the hallmarks of great leadership. 

I’m Here to Help You Own It

Privately send me your challenges, questions and comments. I can’t guarantee I’ll have all the answers, but I will be candid, truthful and genuine.   All of us can inspire, lead and achieve and drive higher performance and organizational health if we simply work at it.

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