Finding Hope in Troubled Times

I've heard executives say that they have never seen things as bad as they are now. Even as the economy shows signs of recovery, it is by no means certain that recovery will be a linear process.

In these troubled times, it is useful to recall examples of leaders who have survived adversity. One of my favorites, and one whom I have written about extensively, is Winston Churchill. For our times the Churchill most apt is not the Prime Minister of 1940 who rallied Britain as the sole force against the Nazis. Rather it is the Churchill of 1915, tossed from the cabinet after the debacle of Dardanelles, an ill-fated plan to knock Turkey out of the Great War.

As we learn in Paul Johnson's splendid new biography, Churchill at age 40 found himself very much alone and reviled. So what did he do? He "brooded" for a bit; his wife Clementine said "I thought he would die of grief." But then to his great delight, Churchill found a new hobby — painting. And through his art, for which he exhibited great talent, he reconnected himself. Rejuvenated, he enlisted in the Army and served on the Front in France for six months of 1915-16. Later Churchill re-entered politics, and from there continued his public life.

The Churchill of this period teaches us that we can recover from our mistakes if we do two things: one, recharge; two, act. The latter is familiar to any executive but action after adversity should be preceded by a period of reflection as well as rejuvenation. Here are three ways to make this happen.

Reflect. Take a step back, consider what happened, and examine the situation from all angles. Discuss with colleagues what went right as well as wrong. Assess your performance and consider what you might have done differently. Now that you know the outcome, use what you know to prepare for the future.

Recharge. Now, put the failure aside and find ways to reconnect with yourself. It may be through a regime of fitness or by spending more time with friends and family. Keep yourself occupied; do not dwell on yourself. Churchill painted. What might you do? Find something to reconnect your mind with your spirit. You may have lost a battle, but you did not lose your life. Keep thinking positively.

(Re)Act. You must do something. If you are in the same job, put lessons learned from failure into place. Debrief your team. If you are in a new job, then find ways to leverage those bitter lessons in your new position. Know that you are a different person, in many ways a stronger one for having withstood the pressures of defeat. Channel your energies into your work, but keep in tune with yourself and people close to you.

Churchill did have one luxury that business leaders may not have: time. He could retire from public life. Leaders on the job now have no such time. Yet no matter how tough things are, every leader can and should make some time for self, especially in the wake of defeat. Failure to do so may pre-destine future failure.

Understand that defeat is not the end. The Churchill of 1915 prepared the way for the Churchill of 1940 to become the savior of his nation. "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity," Churchill once quipped. "An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."

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