There is a very difficult obstacle course located near the FBI Academy for anyone who wishes to challenge it. Those who regularly try to include police officers who are students in the FBI’s National Academy, as well as FBI Special Agent trainees. They prepare for weeks to challenge the course and after completing it, celebrate that accomplishment with great pride.
The course is respectfully and affectionately referred to as the ‘Yellow Brick Road,’ in deference to the many obstacles that Dorothy and her friends faced on that other Yellow Brick Road in their attempt to find the Wizard of Oz. On the final hill of the obstacle course, students have painted several of the rocks along the trail with yellow paint to indicate its connection with Dorothy’s Yellow Brick Road.
To some degree, this Yellow Brick Road represents the adversity that all of us face as leaders. Adversity can often be very painful, debilitating, and overwhelming. The true test of you as a leader, however, is how you face adversity. Realistically, in life there really isn’t much you can control, but what you can control is how you react. The fact that you will face adversity is inevitable, but how you decide to face it makes all the difference in whether you let it control you or whether you control it, learn and grow from it.
You always have two choices when confronted with adversity. The far easier choice is to give up, to accuse, and to wallow in self-pity, self-doubt, and suffering. When you respond to adversity with negativity, you invite nasty, destructive thoughts and attitudes to spiral into your brain. This choice falsely enables you to believe that the world is out to get you or that you are being picked on unfairly. As natural as this reaction may be, this is a horrible and unproductive choice and is not the choice that provides for growth. Pain and adversity are inevitable, but suffering from it is optional.
A far more positive and productive approach is to ‘turn the tables on adversity.’ Use it instead as a springboard to rise above the adversity and an opportunity for development and growth. That is what ‘rising above’ means; to allow your character to grow and become stronger from conflict. A ton of benefits can be extracted from adversity by changing the lens by which it is viewed.
For example, I have a friend who suffered a swimming accident at the age of 14 and sadly became a quadriplegic as a result. Although he had many dark days, he challenged himself to rise above his adversity and learned to paint beautiful pictures by holding his brush in his mouth, became a comedian, and wrote a book. He inspires everyone he meets—including me. Many other examples of people rising above great adversity exist. These people couldn’t possibly have become the people they are today had they not contended with adversity in a positive fashion in the past.
When you accept adversity in a positive lens, opportunities for learning increase and your resilience and character grow. Resilience does not so much imply invulnerability to stress, but rather an ability to recover from negative events. Resilience grows out of a positive reaction to conflict. It helps you deal with adversity with less difficulty and in a positive fashion.
There are always lessons that can be learned from adversity if you are willing to look within and make changes. When you are truly challenged, it is the opportunity for you to learn about yourself and what you are really made of. There are many steps to help you rise above adversity.
Refuse self-doubt. The easiest path to the ‘dark side’ is self-doubt. Don’t go there! The world is complex and there are lots of people out there who react and believe differently from you. At times, conflicts occur and you may be on the losing end. If you take the easy route and let self-doubt control you, you will probably do something you will regret. It is easy to feel sorry for yourself and think you are a victim and strike out. Choose not to be a victim.
Don’t let adversity define you. You are not defined by the adverse situations you face unless you want to be. Don’t let past events define your future. You have talents, abilities, and opportunities to take advantage of. Realize that having to face adversity is not an indictment of you. Look at the adversity as a challenge to rise above.
Find a shoulder to lean on. It is always easier to deal with adversity if you involve people who care about you and who you care for. Draw them to you. They will be your best ‘cheerleaders on the field.’ It is important for them to listen and for you to listen to them, even though you may not always agree. Surround yourself with people who are willing to listen, to talk, and who really care about you.
Focus on the positives. The one trait, above all others, that reliably predicts whether you will be successful in rising above adversity is maintaining a positive attitude. There are always going to be more positives in your life than negatives to focus on. This doesn’t mean that negative thoughts won’t flirt back in from time to time. Accept the situation and look for opportunities to learn and grow. Focus on the positive things in your life so you can make it to your next success.
Laugh and find humor where you can. Humor is often the best response to tough times. Use it to lighten your load a bit. Humor enhances your motivation to change, your creativity, and your morale. Learn to laugh at the adversity and ask, “What have you got for me now, you silly universe? Is that all you’ve got?” You aren’t beaten by a long shot.
Do something positive. Find small and big challenges to tackle to prove to yourself that you can still find ways to beat tough times. When you win any battle, you reinforce your self-image and give yourself a more positive outlook. These opportunities will be there if you just look for them. Resolve to make positive changes that will improve your situation. Develop and implement a plan to grow and rise above the adversity.
Persist no matter what. Develop an attitude that represents you as bigger than what has confronted you, no matter how painful or big. Realize that your adversity is really a small matter compared to what others may be experiencing. Visualize what victory looks like and resolve to achieve it.
Grow from adversity. While you cannot erase the path that brought you to the situation you now face, adopt a lens that allows you to see the positive benefits from the challenge. Be resilient and rise above adversity to become a better and stronger person. Accept the fact that adversity offers the perfect environment to learn and grow. Resolve to rise above it, steal its power, and grow stronger. Character only grows when it is challenged.
You can use your experience with adversity to drain you of energy and hope, or you can use that experience to become a stronger, a more confident, and a more resilient person. Every confrontation with adversity is truly an incredible set of opportunities to accelerate your growth as a person. Accept that facing adversity is inevitable. The real test is how you approach and synthesize that adversity. How you deal with your own personal Yellow Brick Road is completely up to you.
Larry Guerin is a Faculty Instructor at Johns Hopkins University in the areas of leadership and psychology. He was an FBI Supervisory Special Agent for 28 years and taught leadership courses in the FBI’s National Academy. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.