Gut Check: Do You Only Really Lead When Faced With Adversity?

October 14, 2014 Vince Molinaro
Gut Check: Do You Only Really Lead When Faced With Adversity?It was a classic moment.

I was working with the top 50 leaders of a health-care organization. We were exploring some of my ideas on building a strong Community of Leaders.

The vibe in the room was decidedly positive. This group of senior leaders faced some typical challenges: working across silos; managing conflicting priorities; leading change. Yet they all really wanted to come together as an extended leadership group to lead in a more aligned manner.

We spent some time identifying their top strengths and gaps as a community of leaders, using a card sort activity we designed. The group reported that their number one strength as a senior leadership group was in their ability to demonstrate resilience in the face of adversity. It was unanimous. Every leader believed this is what they excelled at.

As we debriefed, many were surprised by how much consensus there was on this single item. The leaders began to cite example after example of how they banded together to deal with an unexpected event or crisis. Other times, they would swoop in, like a superhero just in the nick of time to “save the day”. The tone in the room was positive; I could tell they were feeling really good about themselves. Then, the classic moment happened.

One of the leaders stood up and challenged the group. He said, “At first I thought this was our strength, but if we only really lead when faced with adversity, then I don’t believe we are really leading. It seems to me we spend all our time reacting. What are we doing to anticipate things, to nip issues before they become big problems?”

The room went silent. That leader spoke to the truth, and in doing so created what I call a “gut check” moment for the entire senior leaders. They all began to see how their perceived strength could in fact be a weakness, and one that could be creating havoc within their organization.

Without a hint of defensiveness, the other leaders began to re-examine their performance through a different lens. And sure enough, one by one they all agreed they could have been doing a much better job at anticipating and shaping things before and thereby leading, rather than merely reacting.

I have seen this same pattern repeated many times with leaders of many other organizations. It seems that a good number of leaders define their performance only when dealing with adversity. They don’t define leadership as anticipating situations before they turn into significant problems.

That’s a shift in perspective that many of us need to undertake. Listen, we’ll always have unexpected events arise that test us. In those situations, it’s good to know you and your fellow leaders can come together to demonstrate resilience and resolve.

However, it’s just not enough to lead in these moments. Real leadership is about looking forward and anticipating what may be coming at you. It’s about taking actions to circumvent problems before they arise. It’s about positioning yourself to mitigate or even defuse a potential risk.

What’s the pattern with you and your leaders?

This week’s Gut Check asks: do you only really lead when faced with adversity?

Follow me @VinceMolinaro

About the Author

Vince Molinaro

Vince Molinaro is the Global Managing Director of Strategic Solutions at Lee Hecht Harrison. He is also the author of The Leadership Contract – a New York Times and USA Today bestseller. Vince has spent more than 20 years as an adviser to boards and senior executives looking to improve leadership in their organizations.

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