George S. Patton once said, “The test of success is not what you do when you’re on top. Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom”. As I think of great leaders I know, I believe this to be true. Although we admire things they accomplish in the pinnacles of their lives, it’s the lessons leaders learn when things don’t go their way that makes them worth following.
If you’re doing anything at all, you’re bound to run into adversity. Whether you’re running a company, heading up a family, or coordinating a group of volunteers, there are going to be times when things don’t go quite as you plan. Sometimes it’s because you miscalculated, and sometimes it’s because of things that others do that require you to need to shift gears. I’m always intrigued to watch people in these circumstances, because there are a few distinct personalities that seem to always emerge:
- The Ostrich: The proverbial head-in-the-sand individual who refuses to admit that anything is wrong. Sometimes the ostrich is physically absent (corporate ostriches stay in their offices and don’t talk to but a few people), but in today’s world, he can be someone who convinces himself and those around him that things will be alright. Well-honed ostriches pass themselves off as optimists (don’t worry – the money will come in). They try to surround themselves with people who are afraid to rock the boat, who in an effort to continue to please the ostrich, keep feeding it with information to support the story that there really isn’t a problem. If you are being led by an ostrich, it can feel good at first – after all, who wants to hear they are failing? But over time, you begin to wonder what the person is eating, drinking or smoking that causes the delusion that all is well. Bright people working for ostriches keep their resumes dusted off.
- Ostriches almost never bounce very high when the fail. They will ride a wave into the ground, never fully understanding why they failed at all.
- The Dial-Turner: The person who knows the ship is going down, but can’t focus on what to do, so he resorts to turning all the dials at once. These are usually very reactionary people, with available resources to help them make things happen. They don’t like to waste time getting different points of view, and if they could, they’d wear a cape. These are people who don’t like to be associated with failure, and will do everything in their power to make a problem go away. They often measure success by the level of activity they generate. They’ll measure quick blips of success (they do get lucky), take credit, and deal with the next crisis. Working for a dial turner can lead to a nervous breakdown. Today you zig, tomorrow you zag.
- Dial-turners almost never stop bouncing because they are always surrounded by problems brought on by their own doing. But they don’t bounce very high.
- The Incredible Sulk: The person who decides the world is against him because everything goes wrong. He doesn’t mobilize himself or anyone else because he plays victim. Instead, he looks for people to blame and hopes that someone else makes the problem go away. This type of person creates an environment of negativity, and drains any energy that might exist around him. Working for a person like this is depressing – unless you’re just like him in which case you’ll work each other into such a negative spiral that no one else will want to be around you.
- Sulks rarely succeed because they are too busy being negative to recognize opportunities to turn things around.
Look around you. You’ll see people like this all around you. You don’t like to have any of them as leaders. Instead, you prefer a profile resembling the following:
- The Leader/Coach: The person who identifies the problem, examines the options, mobilizes the necessary skills around him, and executes. The leader/coach takes the time to provide context to those on the team, to make sure everyone understands the problem – what it is, and what it’s not. He priorities activities and sets goals. He then trusts his team to do their part, makes decisions that are needed (even if they aren't comfortable), measures progress against goals, and rewards people for success.
Leaders develop over time. They have natural skills, but they are learners. The take every challenge, and grow from it – and make sure those around them do the same. People who work with great leaders feel appreciated and don’t shy away from adversity – they embrace it!