How do you respond to adversity?

Things are going to go sideways…so how do you respond?

Geoff Wilson

No strategy survives contact with the enemy.

That’s a timeless truth that, while written for a military crowd, is valid in all parts of life.

If you don’t like that one, how about this one:  “Man plans…God laughs.”

In other words, no matter how much you think you are in control, there are risk factors to any plan that will prove you are not.  These risk factors create adverse outcomes for your business, or maybe your career.  So, how do you respond to them?  How do you handle adversity?

I could riff here about always having contingency plans and ensuring that you have mitigated key risks across the board.  Those things are important and I certainly preach them to my clients.  Still, what do you do when a true black swan risk shows up in your back yard.  They do happen, and the way people respond to them are absolutely defining.

A famous case is the so-called “Tylenol murders” in the 1980s.  Bottles of Tylenol were laced with cyanide by some nut job (yeah, I know, but I can only call them like I see them).  People were dying.  And, what did Johnson & Johnson–the maker of Tylenol–do?  They pulled all distribution, stopped advertising, and recalled all the product from the shelf.  They absolutely gutted what was no doubt a cash cow for the corporation, and in doing so made a widely praised statement to the world that their focus was on product safety above profit.

I suspect that product tampering may have been on J&J’s radar before the incident, and J&J may have had contingency plans. But in any instance, the response to adversity was a defining moment.  Compare that to today’s situation with opioid pills–distributed to the letter and not the spirit of the law–leading to deaths of tens of thousands of people.  It’s not clear that current makers even have internal contingencies. They are being forced into contingencies by legal and social pressures.  Such inaction has defined perceptions of many drug makers lately as well.

What these cases illustrate is that how one responds to adversity usually tracks very closely to what one values.  When things go sideways (or south), you often are left with only your most basic principles to operate from.

As an individual, your most basic principles may be to ensure your family is provided for and your health isn’t impaired.

As an executive, your most basic principles may be to ensure the survival of the company in trying times.

As a board member, your most basic principles may be to ensure that the company operates both legally and ethically in times of strife.

As a strategist who works to maintain a focus on the real world, I can only say this:  Your plans are likely to succeed only partially, and in some instances, they will fail completely.  It’s in the basic values you espouse that you will find your likely responses to adversity.  Instead of the usual approach to management that involves working the business problem from the top down (e.g., forming a commander’s intent and disseminating it), you suddenly have to work the problem from the bottom up (e.g., falling back on the basic values that you have articulated and built into your organization).

If you don’t have a foundation of values that will allow you to clearly lead through adversity, you are likely to fail.

What do you think?

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