Experiencing Adversity As A Source of Competitive Advantage

a racing yach sailing in the whitsundays, australia

Is this person strategic?

Do they deliver results?

Can they develop other leaders?

How do they work in leadership teams?

Do they build customer loyalty?

When recruiting leadership talent, these are the top 5 questions we ask about potential candidates. However, in addition to these key skills, one of the more subtle areas worth probing, is to see how an individual deals with adversity.

Death or acute sickness of a family member, working to pay for college, experiencing a civil war or national tumult, immigration to a different country, are all examples of different forms of personal adversity that each of us deal with differently.

Those who face adversity, where they have little/no control of the difficult external environment, truly understand the sense of abject helplessness in such circumstances. However, once you navigate out of such a situation, and are able to “re-ground and re-orient” yourself to what needs to be accomplished, this new found reality makes us stronger and much more determined than where we started off.

Such personal adversity injects both humility and entrepreneurial spirit in a person, which maybe a very valuable source of competitive advantage in the workplace.

 Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart grew up during the depression as a teenager in high school, milked the family cow, bottled the surplus, and drove it to customers. Afterwards, he would deliver newspapers on a paper route. He worked through his entire college life and worked to pay for his own meals. His experiences during the Great Depression as a teenager, and later in the military, shaped his core values and played a strong role in building one of the most successful corporations in the world.

 Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, mentions in a speech at Stanford (http://www.ted.com/talks/steve_jobs_how_to_live_before_you_die.html) about how getting fired from Apple was one of the best things that happened to him. It helped him re-focus on what he really wanted to do and what was important to him. it’s that “hunger” that made him successful in thinking through new solutions in all his future endeavors. This is what, Jobs believes, is at the root of the recent renaissance of Apple.

People like Walton and Jobs are iconic examples of how people deal with adversity and make difficult circumstances the source of their own personal strength– which ultimately translates to organizational competitive advantage. 

 Having worked with a wide variety of people over the last twenty five years, I have noticed that  folks who may have experienced a bout with cancer or significant trauma from an accident, or lived through a tumultuous time, e.g. a civil war or wartime military engagement,  have a different disposition when it comes to both creative decision-making and action orientation.

The style is typically “no-nonsense”; they appear to be invigorated by a level of versatility and “hunger” that is non-bureaucratic and refreshing. It’s as if, nothing really matters (for them) any more.  They want to do the right things, the right way – in the right amount of time.

As we emerge from yet another economic downturn,  leaders look at their organizations building them with talent that provides both, immediate results and long term competitive advantage. The key characteristics desired  to shape our organizations are: creative problem solving, with speed, which can provide a significant source of competitive advantage in organizations, big and small.

The competitive dynamics that are core to any business environment, stem from either dramatic cost reduction (example: Wal-Mart) or new “leap frog” solutions (think IPods from Apple) – in either case, if you are not way ahead of the competition, someone’s most likely to “eat your lunch”. To win in atypical competitive battles, and duel with inevitable economic downturns, we need to have in our teams, folks who have couragously dealt with signficant adversity in their personal or professional lives. 

It’s not that, only experiences in adversity makes one a strong leader; however,  strong leaders, with the experience of adversity, turn out to be exceptional leaders when things go wrong in our complicated and constantly changing world. Adverse personal conditions can be a source of both personal strength and organizational competitive advantage.


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