Thursday, October 27, 2016

How Adversity Affects the Backbone, and Soul, of a Leader

Guest post from Bernie Swain:   

Leadership requires all sorts of qualities: judgment, character, confidence, an unshakeable commitment to a work ethic guided by a moral compass. But in order to lead others, people also have to lead themselves, a quality that is often tested during periods of adversity.

I got to know many leaders in politics, the military, business, sports, and entertainment over the 30-plus years that I led the Washington Speakers Bureau, a company I co-founded and built. I learned that one of the key turning points in their lives came as a result of a personal setback that shook them to their core. They drew on inner resources they sometimes didn’t know they had to not only persevere through an unexpected job loss, health issue, or family crisis but to define and shape a future that would have new meaning. They emerged battered, but stronger—and much more aware of what they could control, and what they couldn’t.

The lessons they learned—about themselves, the curveballs thrown by life, and the power that comes from staying the course—offer insights to all who aspire to leadership roles that will help them harden their backbones and soften their souls. Here are some of those lessons.
Lou Holtz is the only coach in football history to have taken teams from four colleges to a top 20 ranking. But when he was 28, he was let go from his job as a defensive backfield coach at the University of South Carolina.

He had a big mortgage, no savings, two kids, and a wife who was one month away from delivering their third. “Have you ever thought about going into a different profession?” Lou was asked by the coach who laid him off.
The answer, of course, was and is no, and that coach wound up rehiring him. The lessons young Holtz learned that year “have guided me all my life,” he told me.

“Adversity is part of life, no matter who you are, what your age, and what you do. You will never outgrow or outlive it, but you can be motivated by it. You have two choices: you either stay down or pick yourself up.”
Judy Woodruff has been a prominent television journalist and news anchor for more than 40 years. She’s also the mother of three children. Her oldest, Jeffrey, was born with a mild form of spina bifida, a defect that involves the spinal cord. When he was 10 months old, Jeffrey had a shunt implanted—shunts drain away excess fluid—and he became an active kid who played sports and did well academically.
But when he was in the 10th grade, the shunt needed to be replaced, there was a complication, and “something went terribly wrong” during follow-up surgery, Judy recalls, leaving Jeffrey with a serious brain injury. He would be functional again on some level, but never fully recover. He couldn’t walk, his short-term memory was gone, his speech was severely compromised.

“We willed ourselves to go on,” Judy recalls. She and her husband, fellow journalist Al Hunt Jr., pulled together, helped by a group of Jeffrey’s former teachers who became volunteer tutors and by medical students who served as companions. Jeffrey is just as smart as before, but “because of his physical disabilities, and especially because of his impaired short-term memory, every day for him is like climbing Mount Everest.” Jeffrey met the daily challenge with “courage and determination.”  Eventually, he went back to school and graduated from college. Now, more than 15 years later, he has a “pretty good life,” lives in a group home and has a job.

“I would never wish our experience on anyone,” Judy says, “and yet seeing what our son has accomplished against such long odds has been unimaginably rewarding. When you meet Jeffrey Hunt and see what it takes for him to get through the day—and how he does it with a positive outlook and a sense of humor—it makes your own problems seem very small . . . Al and I could spend the rest of our lives being angry. But we take our cue from Jeffrey. We get on with life.”  

Stew Leonard Jr. led a charmed life for many years, helping to run the fabulously successful chain of Stew Leonard’s food stores founded by his father. Everything was good until New Year’s Day 1989 when his 21-month-old son, Stewie, escaped attention for just a few moments and fell into a pool.  “Life can change in an instant,” Stew remembers of his son’s death. “Even at that moment, I knew everything would be divided into ‘before’ and ‘after.’ “

The “after” was predictably very dark at first. Besides blaming each other for what happened, Stew and his wife, Kim, went through waves of grief, anger, and resentment.

“Sometimes, well-meaning people would say, ‘You’ll get over this.’ But one of the lessons I learned is that you don’t ever get over a trauma that deep. You can’t simply wrap it up, leave it behind, and move on with your life as if it hadn’t happened.”

But what you can do is change. “I am a different person . . . I hug my four daughters and my wife a lot longer and tighter now. And my life is slower now. Oh, work is fast, but I look at people differently. When I look at someone today, I am overwhelmed with the thought, ‘What’s happening in their life?’

“What Stewie’s death taught me falls somewhere between empathy and perspective . . . I was born with advantages and privilege. Most people aren’t. When tragedy hits, it’s very humbling. You realize your basic humanity, and that it’s something we all share.” 

More than 25 years after losing his son, Stew says, “I am still trying to figure it out. What I can say clearly is that I am inspired to be a better person.”

Washington DC-based BERNIE SWAIN is co-founder of Washington Speakers Bureau and today's  foremost authority on the lecture industry.  Over the past 35 years, Swain has represented former US Presidents, cabinet members, business executives, public figures, media leaders, and sports legends.  His new book, What Made Me Who I Am, is available everywhere.  For more, visit

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