How to Lead In the Face of Adversity


The word courage written on a piece of parchment laying on a table

How the dictionary defines adversity


The dictionary defines adversity as "difficulties or misfortune." Those seem like small words to define our often big problems that we experience in life. Adversity is often more like a large, scary looking problem that seems incredibly daunting.


This is even more challenging for leaders because it is often not just themselves, they might be worried about. Leaders could be worried about their team, employees, company or organization and be responsible for them. In our article guidebook for new leaders, we discuss how to best develop the connections with your team you need to have.

Examples of adversity


History provides a multitude of examples of leaders overcoming adversity. We have the ability as leaders to look back on the challenges and triumphs of others as examples of how we can move forward ourselves.


George Washington's strength at Valley Forge

Revolutionary War soldiers in a line

In the early stages of the Revolutionary War, George Washington found himself and his army in dire circumstances. They had suffered a series of terrible defeats and narrowly escaped complete annihilation at the hands of the British army. They barely escaped from Philadelphia after surrendering the city to the British.


Washington led his beleaguered 12,000-man army into Valley Forge with practically nothing. They had lost almost all their food and supplies in the retreat from the city and survival was anything but guaranteed. Washington mentioned in his memoirs how many of his troops didn’t even have shoes or proper clothing.


Over the next several months, Washington would watch 2,000 of his men die from disease, starvation or the elements. Not to mention, he somehow had to come out of the winter prepared to fight what was considered the best army in the world at that time.


Through sheer determination, will power and the support of many civilians, Washington got his army through the winter. He also managed, with the help of Baron Friedrich von Steuben, a Prussian drill master, to train his army and teach them to fight.


Winston Churchill's resilience

Winston Churchill black and white portrait

In the early stages of World War 2, Churchill was the newly elected Prime Minister and found himself in a terrible predicament. His army had just been crushed in the German takeover of France. The RAF lost huge amounts of pilots, planes and supplies and the only mobilized army available to Great Britain was trapped at Dunkirk.


In one of the most harrowing examples of ordinary people stepping up to the plate, almost 200,000 soldiers were safely evacuated. The hardships were only just beginning, however. The people of Britain endured day after day of intense bombing and threat of invasion by Germany.


Churchill was known during this time to daily walk the streets of London encouraging the people and helping wherever he could. He knew that his people looked to him to carry the spirit of a whole nation. The famous mantra of the British people during this time was “keep calm and carry on.” It was this perseverance that brought them through one of the darkest challenges in British history.



Adversity defines people


Everyone has their own unique challenges they are facing on a day-to-day basis. When you look at those whom you interact with daily, what adversity might they be facing? How they respond to the adversity in their life, often defines the trajectory of the future. Sometimes the defining symptoms of adversity are acute and impacts a short period of time. Signs such as stress, shortened attention spans and mood swings are such symptoms.


Other times, these symptoms develop chronic issues like depression, PTSD or physical limitations as a result of the adversity they faced.


As leaders, it is our job to know as best we can what those around us are dealing with. This isn’t to be nosy but rather aware. Knowing a little about what people may be struggling with allows us as leaders to cater our approach to that individual.


As leaders it is on us to hold everyone to the same standard while treating everyone uniquely. We cannot rely on our formal authority to get things done.


Leaders shouldn’t manage people differently; they should manage them uniquely.

Some examples of adversity are objectively difficult like the situations discussed above. However, the amount of adversity one faces is often very subjective and personal. What might seem simple to some leaders might seem very challenging to others and vice versa.


Regardless of how intense the adversity you face is, what is your reaction as a leader? Do you become moody, sad and angry? Do you become falsely happy and way over the top to pretend it isn’t a problem?


Standing up tall



Martin Luther King Jr. standing in front of other men speaking

Just as Washington and Churchill had to carry the spirit of those, they were responsible for on their shoulders; we as leaders must stand up tall in the face of adversity. Love it or hate it, it is our job to carry the emotional and mental load for those that look to us to lead. As we just discussed, adversity can be defining for individuals and for leaders.


However, when it comes to leaders, adversity doesn’t just define, it reveals. Is the leader legit? Do they have the fortitude and toughness to weather the storm for themselves, their family, their team? Adversity is one of the true tests for leaders. It is a variable that is hard to train for, hard to prepare for until it happens.

When faced with adversity, leaders must stand up tall and answer the call.


Overcome the odds

Every leader will find their leadership tested by adversity, there is no escaping it. We live in an imperfect world surrounded by imperfect people. This shouldn’t scare you as a leader though but rather serve as a reminder that the little things we do everyday matter. If we are building relationships with our people, learning what our teams can handle and staying grounded, then weathering adversity isn’t so scary.


If you want to be a successful leader, then you must approach adversity head on, with a solution focused attitude that refuses to quit. You cannot allow your personal feelings to jeopardize the team morale.


You don’t have to be a mindless robot, quite the opposite. Great leaders can walk the fine line between showing emotion and passion but not letting it cloud their judgement or cause panic in their team.


Leaders must keep the faith in their abilities, their team’s abilities and faith in the bonds that hold us together. If we as leaders can tap into those bonds to bring people together, then we can overcome the odds.


Face down your fears


Adversity can be scary, difficult and exhausting. Remember those that have come before you, remember the strength that exists in the bonds of your team, family and organization. Regardless of the challenges, you as the leader must keep calm and carry on.


Face adversity with strength and resilience and help those you see dealing with hardship. When leaders look outwards and help those around them, it can bring strength and resilience back to the leader.


Be strong in the face of adversities and you will find that no matter the hardship, you are strong enough to handle them!


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