I. Own the Adversity

This series of posts highlights the most important leadership lessons I’ve learned throughout my career. Each post began as an email sent to my design team as we were being acquired in 2018.


Under stress, leadership is more important than ever. As is often said, ‘anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm’.  But what happens when you face difficulty? When things don’t go your way? How do you react? Where do you focus? What gets your attention and energy?

As a leader, it’s important to consider our personal approach to adversity. In this series of posts, I thought I’d share 6 principles that I’ve found useful in taking a leadership stance in business and life.

Principle 1: Own The Adversity

Change is the only constant in life. This means sometimes things won’t go our way. We will face challenges and setbacks. What defines us are not these momentary difficulties, but instead, how we react to those situations.

Consider some situations we might face:

  • Only three people ‘liked’ your blog post.

  • You didn’t get the promotion you expected.

  • The request for new headcount didn’t come through.

  • You didn’t set a personal best in the recent half marathon.

  • The feature you have been pushing for was cut from the release.

If you’re like most of us, our immediate reaction is to explain it away - attributing it to things outside our control. We might chalk it up to timing, bad luck, or circumstance. If we are less charitable, we devolve into finger pointing and blame.

These reactions may feel good at the time, but they don’t move us forward. The useful path is to find our role in the situation - to shine a light on our own behaviors, and uncover places where we could have done more.

“In every situation, life is asking us a question, and our actions are the answer.”- Ryan Holiday

At work and at home, our ego is the enemy. None of us wants to face the reality that maybe we didn’t do all we could. Maybe it wasn’t timing or luck, but in fact, we fell short in our ability, and maybe, just maybe, the issue we are facing is of our own making.

The late, great, Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People spoke about acting with ones ‘Circle of Influence” (vs. Circle of Concern). This meant that when facing a challenge or tackling a goal, it’s best to focus on things within our control. Of course, this makes sense. What else could you do? Complaining about the process or finding fault in others is a downward spiral. It's corrosive to the team, but as importantly, it doesn't solve the problem.

The next time you face a setback, try this approach. Step back and consider what you could have done to improve the outcome. Could you have been better prepared? Could you have sold your ideas more effectively? Could you have briefed the team earlier?

Excellence begins with a willingness to be honest about our deficiencies (and we all have them), coupled with the discipline to work on ourselves in the service of the team.

Articles in the Series