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How to Bounce Back from Adversity

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After talking to hundreds of CEOs in dozens of countries, there is one fundamental truth that stands out for me. There is no such thing as stability; the only constant is change and uncertainty. Great leaders must learn two lessons that are critical to their success in life and business: First, embrace the reality of uncertainty every moment of every day. Every time we breathe the world changes. Second, we have to get comfortable being uncomfortable and not be so afraid of adversity.

So many of us think the goal of life is to be happy at all times; that things should go well every day. However, part of being a successful leader and a healthy person is to recognize that the goal of life is to live it to the fullest. That means good days and bad days, opportunities and challenges, celebrations and rejections.

We have to learn how to fall down and get up – to be resilient in the face of uncertainty. The faster we can fall down and bounce back to course correct and get back on our feet, the healthier we will be and the more success we will have in business. It’s inevitable that today or tomorrow or the next day, you will lose a major customer, get sick or have an argument with your boss. The list goes on and on. The best leaders feel their feelings, process through them and get back up quickly.

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We can learn a lot from our kids. Watch how our 2-year-olds learn to walk or our 6-year-olds learn to ride a bike — they fall down and they bounce right back up, sometimes without even shedding a tear. There’s a difference between vulnerability and weakness. By definition we are all vulnerable in the face of uncertainty, but we don’t have to be weak.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Atina Difney, co-owner of a small organic produce business for thirty years with its own ups and downs. Just when her business is ready to take off, a huge privately held energy company (Koch Industries) with revenues over $100 billion tried to seize her company’s land to put her out of business and put in an oil pipeline instead. Ouch, that hurt…

She fought back with inner strength, courage and determination; rallied her friends and allies; involved the state government to pass guidelines to protect her business from the pipeline and was able to shut down the project. She fell down and bounced back. She said to me in a conversation, “People see someone doing something brave and they think that the person is fearless. It’s not that they’re fearless, it’s just that they don’t let the fear stop them.”

Here are leadership lessons on how to live life with a calm, cool, collected attitude, like Atina:

  • Know you will fall down from time to time – don’t be afraid of your anxiety.
  • Learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable, embrace your feelings and move through them.
  • Stay confident that you will move through the challenge – you’ve been there before, you will do it again.
  • The key is to feel the scrape on your knee, put a Band-Aid on it, and get back up on the bike as quickly as possible.

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