Simple Tips for Thriving as Leaders in the Face of Adversity in 2021

18 Mar 2021 9:13 AM | Sarah Elkington (Administrator)


This post discusses the increasing level of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity confronting organizations in the 21st century and the adversity this VUCA world brings to organizational leadership. At the end of this article, four strategic choices are suggested to provide organizational leaders the capacity to leverage adversity for personal leadership and organizational well-being. I hope to address in a separate article, with a colleague with whom I conducted the research, personal strategies for leadership resilience. This article looks at resilience through an organizational lens.

Victor Turners Model of Leadership Emergence in the Face of Adevrsity/Liminality

Adversity and Leadership Have Been Linked Since Ancient Times

In ancient literature like Homer’s Odyssey and Shakespeare’s King Lear (Berry, 2007) we are confronted with many stories of people who were progressively shaped by adversity. These narratives also detail how adversity may have been a factor in preparing these people for leadership within specific contexts. Business leaders in today’s global economy are keenly aware that the 21st century is proving to be a time of intense volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity which often results in adversity for the leader. Whether it is the economic downturn and the global debt crisis, or the tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, and the disasters that result from these cataclysmic events, such as the nuclear tragedy in Fukushima, Japan – different levels of adversity seem to confront communities in increasing measure. How business leadership emerges from and responds to these increasing levels of adversity is the focus of this article.

Defining Adversity

Stoner and Gilligan (2002:19) distinguish adversity from crisis based on the risk to survival. For Stoner and Gilligan adversity comprises the following three elements:

  • ·       Adversities are unexpected.
  • ·       Adversities are disruptive, twisting and thwarting the expected patterns of planned action.
  • ·       Adversity has a level of uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding it.  The path through it is often not immediately clear.

Adversity is a Reality in the VUCA World of the 21st Century

Business leaders increasingly come face to face with large and powerful threats to personal and corporate survival. These threats, this adversity, often calls for extraordinary courage, resilience, and tough-mindedness to enable the leader to overcome this adversity in a way that produces corporate and personal strength. The good news is that effective responses to adversity tend to build greater resilience in the life of the leader, which in turn enables these leaders to face the next round of adversity that is sure to arise at any moment. 

 Rob Elkington Ph.D.  

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