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Agility in Adversity

Agility in Adversity

How you can handle a crisis with a clear head and a can-do approach.

Clare Boothe Luce, writer, editor, diplomat and wife of Time magazine founder Henry Luce, once said: "There are no hopeless situations; there are only men who have grown helpless about them." Learning to deal with adversity in your company, your career and your life is an essential element of effective leadership.

Many times you succeed not by what you do when things are going well, but by what you do when they are not. Just as an agile company more easily retains its competitive edge, strong, agile leaders have a knack for turning problems into opportunities and for bouncing back from adversity.

I once had a job with a division of an oil company, which had assigned me to manage its regional technology operations in the US Southwest. Less than a year after my move across country, the company divested this division. The next thing I knew I was working for the company's exploration and production division. Here I was: a woman, a non-engineer and an Easterner to boot. Definitely not a prescription for success!

I could have moaned about the unfairness of life or quit and run away, but instead I mourned my loss for about 30 seconds and then looked for opportunities. I ended up leading an upgrade of the company's scientific computing and data environment - to the delight of the geologists and engineers. This period turned out to be one of growth, during which I built relationships and expanded my knowledge of a challenging business. The experience enhanced my credentials as a leader.

Crisis Mismanagement

It's tempting to try to get out of a jam by whining, pointing fingers or covering up the problem. But such responses undermine your credibility and strength as a leader. Let's take a look at some responses to adversity that you should avoid.

The "It's not fair" whine. It may be comforting to wallow in self-pity, but whining about the unfairness of life is a waste of time. If, at this stage in life, you still harbour expectations of fairness then you must have led a charmed existence. Welcome to the real world! Failing to deal with what is while lamenting what you wish would be also sets a poor example. If your staff responds this way when faced with setbacks at their level, the organization's problem-solving muscles will atrophy.

Faultfinding. While knowing who is at fault in a crisis may be useful for coaching that individual to avoid future mishaps, finger-pointing distracts from the task of dealing with the problem. It will drive your staff to defend their actions rather than to focus on solutions, wasting vital energy. Faultfinding also has a deleterious effect in the long run, because people avoid risks in order to avoid the wrath of a blame-seeking leader.

The cover-up. Fear of the consequences of a mistake may tempt you to try to hide it, especially if you are culpable in any way. Recent headlines should dissuade you from taking this path. Burying a problem or ignoring it will likely make it worse. Other people will see your problem festering and question your lack of action. This will undermine your credibility.

The above responses aren't agile because they take the focus off the problem rather than lead to a quick resolution.

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