Office Politics: How True Leaders Win

Four Ways To Turn Adversity Into Career Growth

Plant growing from dry cracked desert

Bhavani was disgusted. It was our second executive coaching session together, and she was telling me about all the political nonsense going on at work.


She decried the rampant gamesmanship she saw on every side – from her boss to her fellow executives to her direct reports. Worse, she told me, the only people who were getting ahead were those who were good at “playing the game.”


In her opinion, the company didn't reward good work; it revered political whiz kids.


Bhavani’s story wasn't the first I'd heard about workplace drama. I'm confident it won't be the last. Where ever humans gather, drama inevitably arises – some virtuous, some innocuous. Some downright shameful.


Unless you've chosen a hermit's life, you inhabit the tapestry of human experience every day. And when all is said and done, the question remains: How will you deal with it?


How Leaders Play On Muddy Fields


With many of my executive coaching clients, I use an analogy based on the world's most popular sport: football, known as soccer in the US and Canada.


Soccer players have virtually no control over the conditions on their playing field. For any given match, the conditions may be wet or dry, hot or cold. The turf may be natural or artificial, nicely groomed or rough. The fans – and the referees – may be friendly or out-and-out nasty.


Whatever the conditions, a soccer player's job is to perform the best she can. She knows there will always be elements outside her control. Some of these elements may be patently unfair. Regardless, she shows up and plays on – without whining or complaining.


The same is true for corporate athletes. It does no good to grumble or gripe about the conditions of your playing field. What matters is how you show up on that field.


The Way You Respond Is Your Choice


Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist, Holocaust survivor, and author of Man's Search for Meaning, is known for this uplifting insight:


"Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."


Frankl argued that in every situation, no matter how grim, we can choose our response, even if only to choose our attitude. As I recently wrote, this applies even when you're up to your neck in alligators.


Of course, some circumstances are genuinely dangerous. If you're suffering harassment in the workplace (mental, emotional, or sexual), take action and get safe. Report the situation through the proper channels, and if you believe you're in danger, get out of there.


Why Adversity Is Your Friend


I used to work for a company which once asked its senior executives what experience had most shaped their leadership development. The answers were astonishingly uniform: Adversity had molded them into leaders more than anything else.


That's right. Virtually without exception, these top leaders said grappling with difficulty, hardship, and crisis required them to develop new skills and mindsets that forever changed them – for the better.


Post-traumatic growth (PTG) theory explains how many people become stronger following hard times. And while most of us would never beat the bushes for traumatic experiences, it's well-known that muscles of all kinds grow as a result of resistance, pressure, and strain.


I grew more from almost getting fired as CFO of Microsoft North America than I did from the day-to-day responsibilities of the job. Years later, my near-death experience with pulmonary embolism provoked a wholesale change in how I thought about making a living, prompting me to leave a CFO career to become an executive coach.


And I’ll never forget the starry desert night when my dad told me he was grateful for the resilience and faith he’d developed as a result of battling cancer.


Grateful, he said!


Four Ways Leaders Vanquish Adversity


If you're going through a tough time on the job, I have four tips for you:

  1. Remember that you have choices. Pause, put on your creative thinking cap, and consider your alternative responses to this situation. Objectifying the problem in this way will help you see new perspectives, new possibilities, and new choices.

  2. Consult your core values. As you consider your options, one will resonate with your core values – the ideals that are enduringly important to you. This response will allow you to feel pride in your actions and peace in your heart because it aligns with your values. Choose that one; regardless of the outcome, you won't regret it.

  3. Ask yourself what you can learn from the situation. While it might be tempting to daydream about how much better things would be if you didn't have to deal with this problem, leveraging a challenge is virtually always better than escaping it. Reframe the situation to reveal how you can take advantage of it.

  4. Stand by your choice courageously. I define courage as doing what you think is right even when it's risky. Trust your choice and know that everything will be OK no matter the outcome, simply because you chose the honorable path. Don't procrastinate. Get on with the right thing.

You're going to face demanding times in your career. Maybe you already have. As my favorite boss was fond of saying, no one gets a free lunch.


But please don't whine. It will get you nowhere fast. Instead, follow my tips to grow from your hurdles and find more joy in your journey.


Remember: Turbulence and adversity are not only part of everyone's human experience – they’re what’s necessary for us to get stronger. You’ll find that overcoming your challenges with perspective and courage is what separates the followers from the leaders.