Adversity is the true test of leadership

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Scott Brodeur
  • 4th Space Control Squadron, Commander
When a unit experiences high levels of success, in which personnel perform at their finest and operations function flawlessly, the commander must not credit his or her unit's success to leadership ability but rather management skills. Only during adversity will a commander's leadership truly be tested.

Admiral James Stockdale described his 7-year imprisonment in the Hanoi Hilton as a privilege to have the opportunity to lead men and serve his country during the most difficult of circumstances. In my opinion, there are other commanders who are true specimens of command, cut from the same fabric as Admiral Stockdale, such as Gen. Robinson Risner and Col. Bud Day, both true leaders who overcame adversity in Hanoi under horrific conditions.

Commanders and leaders at all levels within the unit must understand that our leadership during adverse situations establishes our reputation and defines us as leaders. We may never face the same levels of adversity as the legendary commanders in the Vietnam War, but our actions and reactions during the challenging times will be the true test.

Adversity presents itself in many forms, so it will be different for every commander. We have faced challenges such as high operations tempo, budget cuts, critically low manning, civilian furloughs and, of course, the upcoming Combined Unit Inspection. In my squadron, adversity presented itself as short notice deployment tasks and course of action changes, shortage of critical training equipment, increasing divorce rates, removal of the 1st Sgt. and unfortunately, an active duty fatality. Adversity will be random, unpredictable, often emotional, and cognitively intense situations that present opportunities to test our leadership. How you prepare yourself for these inevitable adverse situations may make the difference between success and failure of leadership.

There are several keys to success that help us as leaders when faced with adversity.

1. Learn from failure. This key to success is rooted in debriefing and the lessons Learned process. We must constantly evaluate our performance and capitalize on our valuable lessons. We must learn from the mistakes of our leadership, peers, and subordinates. Don't be too proud to admit your faults and mistakes ... we all have them! As we learn from our failures, we become more experienced and prepared to lead during adverse situations.

2. Establish a vision and priorities, and rely on them as your foundation. Your vision provides fundamental guidance and intent, a sense of direction for your unit to turn to during adverse situations. Priorities are unambiguous guidance for what is most important for the unit and that is critical when leading through adversity because no one will have to guess as to what is most important when there is no time to think about it.

3. Focus on what you can control within your decision space. This prevents us from getting distracted unnecessarily by worrying about someone else's actions or decisions. If we focus on what we can control, adverse situations won't appear insurmountable.

4. Communicate. During adverse situations it is critical to communicate your strategy to your core leadership so that there is clear understanding of the way ahead. Talk to the men and women of the unit and keep them informed of the situation, give them an opportunity to ask questions and be integral to the solution.

5. Take care of your people. Be a good wingman to the unit, conduct health and welfare checks and give your folks opportunities to talk to you and then listen to them. Everyone in the unit is going through the adversity with you ... taking care of your people is fundamental to leadership when the going gets rough.

Most of us will never have to prove our worth as leaders under the unimaginable conditions and situations faced by Adm. Stockdale, Gen. Risner or Col. Day. We will, however, be faced with adversity that will be our true test as leaders, and it will be those times when our core ability as a leader is revealed and our reputations established. What will become your reputation when you are tested?