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How good leaders face up to adversity

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After years of studying growth companies, author Keith McFarland noticed that the best ones experienced “a period of pronounced difficulty.”

How companies respond to adversity may determine winners and losers, he decided. Superior leaders don’t focus solely on getting through tough times, McFarland says. Instead, they ask fundamental questions, listen and face facts.

In his book Bounce, McFarland tells the story of a unit chief and his workout buddy, Joe, an Army ranger between tours in Afghanistan. Joe guides the executive through his company’s disintegration and reintegration in a process he calls “bounce.”

A few of his insights:

Don’t pigeonhole future leaders. When colleagues ask whether you’ve considered so-and-so for a promotion, listen.

Train and trust them. “When I was 20 years old, with only a high school education, the Army put me in charge of a million-dollar piece of equipment, an M1 tank that could do tens of millions of dollars in damage,” Joe says. “When I became a ranger, I was calling in airstrikes by $50 million aircraft. The Army takes thousands of kids like me and entrusts them with billions of dollars of technology and equipment—and the Army has confidence that they will be able to make the toughest decision a human being can ever make: the decision of life or death for another human being.

"How is it that a bunch of blue-collar kids like me operate effectively in one of the most complex and stressful environments? The Army does it by focusing 10% of the effort on getting the right people, and 90% on getting the people right.”

Recognize anxiety … Employees may panic when things start disintegrating. The first level of anxiety, fear of change, triggers the blame game. The second level is fear of what will happen if things don’t change.

… Then absorb it. Absorbing anxiety doesn’t mean taking the pressure off your staff. It does mean resisting the temptation to pile your anxiety on top of theirs.

How? As Capt. Miller says in the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” gripes go up the chain of command, not down. “Always up,” says Miller. “You gripe to me. I gripe to my superior officer. So on, so on and so on. I don’t gripe to you. I don’t gripe in front of you.”

Run toward the sound of gunfire. “It’s true in battle and it’s true in life,” Joe says. “Attack your problems, attack what’s a threat to you.”

— Adapted from Bounce, Keith McFarland, Crown Publishers.

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