The Adversity Advantage

I have always loved the saying, “Tough times never last, but tough people do.” Being “tough” is far more than talk. It is proven under adverse conditions. And these are the times when we see what people are made of. When real character comes to the surface.

I recently attended a training program in San Diego at the US Navy Seal training center called “Leadership under fire.” It is a program designed for CEOs in which the first four days of “hell week” are replicated on the participants: sleep deprivation, endless miles of running, swimming, calisthenics, marching in freezing water, and rowing for six hours straight against Pacific currents.  All designed to push you to the limit. To see when — or if — you break. The whole purpose of “hell week” is not to pass people, but to fail them — to make them quit. So the Seals know, when it is all over, that the people remaining are truly people they can count on in battle.

It’s interesting to hear a Seal’s perspective on people quitting: “I am happy when a guy rings that bell and quits. Look, he may be a nice guy, and someone I would invite over for a beer and to meet the family. But I don’t want to go into battle with a quitter. I need to know I can count on the guy to my left, and the guy to my right. Otherwise I will end up dead.”

Of the 40 initial enrollees, all CEOs from around the world, only 30 finished. And I can say I understand at a visceral level what the Seals are talking about. I feel a special bond with my fellow finishers. They showed me what they are made of when it is 4 a.m. and we have been rowing all night and still have hours to go. And they dug deep and did not give up — when anyone can drop out whenever they choose.

That’s the adversity advantage. Seals relish the challenge to see what they are made of. Adversity brings out our true character. Adversity defines us. We survive adversity, and we end up better for it. The adversity advantage applies to all walks of life, and certainly in business.

Ask any celebrity who has fallen on tough times, and they will tell you they “found out who their friends are” once the money and fame was gone.  I know a man going through a very difficult marital split at present. He was saying it is very telling, not in terms of who sends you a note of support, but the chilling absence of support from the people you most expect it from. In fact, not only has one of his children been unsupportive, but the offspring in question has resorted to vindictive behavior simply to spite his father! As he says, “I discovered what a small person my son really is. It’s a painful learning, but also a useful one for the future.” Not all great men sire great sons.

Adversity brings out our true colors, and reveals the character of those around us. Some people hold it together. Some become stronger. Some end up falling apart, being irrational, petty, backstabbing — anything to save their skin.  It takes all types to make up the world.

We businesspeople can take a page from the Navy Seals. While nobody likes adversity, it’s inevitable in any business. There are always going to be ups and downs. While we should, of course, try and minimize the downs or shorten the duration, we should also not take the downtimes with dread. The best are like the Navy Seals — they embrace adverse times as a test — a test for themselves, their teams, and each person on the team; to see the real character of each and every person. It’s easy to be gracious in good times. It is the tough times that define us.

Seal-type leaders in business also leverage these times to rally the troops. They explicitly call out the adversity  — they don’t try to sugarcoat it. They highlight to their teams that this is a test — and the expectation is victory!

And finally, the best realize that adversity shall pass. And when it does, they do a proper “post mortem” on what happened. How each team member performed. They give coaching and feedback. And they take note of which thrived in adverse conditions. These are the Navy Seals of the organization — the best of the best, and those who won’t let you down.