Leadership During Adversity

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“A state or instance of serious or continuous difficulty or misfortune” Mirriam-Webster

As a leader you will face adversity and if you have not, be sure that it is coming just around the corner.  The greatest of leaders are able to show resolve and character in times of crisis.  These leaders are sometimes considered godlike due to their ability to show composure and vision in the midst of these trying times.

Look at antiquity and names like Churchill, Parks, Lincoln, King Jr. and others come to mind.  Those that with their sheer focus and fortitude were able to withstand the most difficult times.  Yet, what are the principles that we can glean from leaders like these and others?

The book Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin provides a glimpse into the lives of four Presidents – Lincoln, FDR, Teddy Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.   Each led our country during turmoil and yet changed our country forever.  No matter your political viewpoint, the principles of leadership remain.

Leading Self


1.     Grow and Improve Yourself:  Lincoln’s close friend Nathaniel Grigsby recalled “He read thoroughly and read books while we played.” Lincoln was a tenacious learner and demonstrated an ambition for learning at a young age.

Teddy Roosevelt

2.     Improve Your Qualities:  He took his strengths and sought to improve on them.  He focused on his strengths through what observers called “Grit” – a relentless desire to stay in his strengths.

Franklin Roosevelt

3.     Developed Interests Outside of Work:  Winston Churchill commented that “When he spent time with his stamp collection it created calmness and order for him.” This approach provided a time of relief for FDR and helped him during WWII.

Lyndon Johnson

4.     Know Your Limits:  Johnson had the ability to know his limitations and knew how to push himself to greater accomplishments.  He was considered a tireless leader, yet also knew when he needed to push himself to get the job done.  Never to be outworked, yet willing to pause when the season came along.

Leading Others


1.     Understood the Emotional Needs of His Team:  Lincoln built his Cabinet full of his rivals.  Those from other parties and viewpoints were not necessarily the dream team.  Yet once he established his team he spent time regularly 1:1 with each person of his team to laugh and connect.  He invested himself emotionally to build trust.

2.     Let Go of the Past:  Stanton became Secretary of State on Lincoln’s Cabinet. Several years earlier Stanton called Lincoln “an ape” due to his long and lanky appearance.  Lincoln let go of the past and invited him to lead the Cabinet because he knew that would be Stanton’s greatest asset to the team.

3.     DRAFT Emails:  Well not really, but Lincoln would DRAFT a letter to vent his frustrations with his team and then revisit.  This allowed him to manage his stress and frustration without lashing out emotionally.  He was able to find a productive way to let go of his anger in a productive fashion. 

Theodore Roosevelt

 4.     Leaders Connect: Wherever Theodore went he spent time connecting with people.  People were viewed as valuable contributors in society and he took to heart their needs by investing his time.

Franklin Roosevelt

5.     Unbridled Optimism:  Faced with polio early on in his life, FDR remained positive.  He focused on what he had and not what he lost.  This optimism inspired a nation during WWII.  It kept the country together during a time of despair.  No doubt, his polio would be crippling, yet his optimism created capability in himself and others.

The Waiting Time Of A Leader

Each of the four endured what Kearns coined the “waiting time” this was the season, where each of them faced adversity personally or politically.  This challenge created character, resolve and vision.  Lincoln faced a time where he must return to the law firm after facing political defeat.  Johnson experienced a heart attack, which provided perspective on his purpose and the importance of people.  FDR faced polio and found within himself the resolve to continue forward.

How do you respond during times of adversity?