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
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.”
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.”  

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

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