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Turning Adversity into Opportunity

By James Kouzes and Barry Posner

(John Wiley, 58 pages, Kindle e-book $12)

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In the past, normal implied placidity – a relatively unchanging situation. But today's normal involves chaos and turbulence.

"Normal means expect the unexpected. Normal means that you can't predict tomorrow's winners based on today's successes. Normal means that leaders and their teams have to be able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances," best-selling authors James Kouzes and Barry Posner write in their short new e-book, Turning Adversity into Opportunity.

In their three decades of management research, the two academics from the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University in California have found challenge to be the defining context for leadership. In a recent study, they asked managers to talk about their personal-best moments of leadership. Inevitably, they focused on periods of adversity that they were able to turn into opportunities. The authors stress that such challenges abound in today's normal. "It's not a choice; it's a requirement. If communities and organizations are not just going to survive but also prosper, leaders must rise to the occasion," they write.

They identified six strategies to succeed:

1. Broaden the context

It's crucial to view what's happening from the perspective of history. After all, leaders in the past have faced challenges and overcome them. So ask yourself how you can help people understand what's happening in the broader environment, and how you can help people understand you are not worse off than others in the past.

2. Defy the verdict

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People need the truth – an honest explanation of the situation. "But defining reality and accepting it as your personal fate are two different things. Just because things are not going the way you predicted doesn't mean that you are doomed to a life of gloom and doom," they note. They point to former Saturday Review Editor Norman Cousins' finding that some cancer patients responded with a fierce determination to overcome the disease. They didn't deny the diagnosis but did refuse to accept the verdict usually associated with it. Those patients lived significantly longer than their oncologists expected.

3. Commit to what's important

If you generate a list of the historical leaders you admire, they probably were individuals of strong principles who were clear about what was important to them and consequential in life. The authors' research found that clarity about personal values has a significant impact on employees' feelings about their work. "People cannot fully commit unless what they are being asked to commit to fits with their own beliefs," they write. So help people to understand why what you're doing matters and why they should feel passionate about it.

4. Take charge of change

The personal best moments the managers outlined were exciting and inspiring, but also filled with stressors. That requires psychological "hardiness," the ability to bounce back. Three attitudes boost such hardiness: Commitment to being involved in the situation; the desire to control your life and influence the situation; and the willingness to confront the challenge rather than playing it safe.

5. Engage others

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We feel healthier in trying times when we gain support from others. Indeed, the authors note that having one supportive stable relationship is an important condition for transcending adversity. So consider how to connect with others affected by the challenge, using the situation to fortify your relationships and build partnerships – creating a sense that you are all in this together.

6. Show you care

Human beings need to be appreciated, so no matter how busy you are grappling with the challenge, make sure you are providing sufficient encouragement to others. That requires face-to-face communication. "Being with people in person is even more critical for leaders with long-distance and global teams. Although it may seem counterintuitive, in difficult times it is important to maintain travel budgets (even possibly increase them) rather than cutting back," they warn.

To call this a slender book would be to exaggerate its size. At fewer than 60 pages, it may be called a book, but it is not much longer than a typical article in the Harvard Business Review. However, the authors' brand and legion of followers allowed for the Kindle outlet, perhaps a sign of mini-e-books to come from other prominent business writers.

Still, it has lots of useful advice, pared down to the essentials – key points, research backing those points, and questions to ask yourself before going ahead with each strategy. Given the turmoil of our world, it's not a bad book to read and come back to amid the hurly-burly.


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John D. Rockefeller, Amelia Earhart, Ulysses S. Grant, and Steve Jobs all exemplify the notion that obstacles can be turned into opportunities, and media strategist Ryan Holiday provides the formula for such success in The Obstacle is the Way (Portfolio, 200 pages, $27.95).

The value of taking a positive, appreciative approach to management is shared through a series of essays in How to be a Positive Leader (Berrett-Koehler, 213 pages, $33.95), edited by Jane Dutton and Gretchen Spreitzer, professors at the Ross School of Business in Michigan.

Consultant Donald Asher provides a bundle of career advice in the second edition of Who Gets Promoted, Who Doesn't and Why (Ten Speed Press, 199 pages, $17.95).

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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