This article first appeared in Consulting Business Buzz on January 14, 2013.
I grew up on a cattle ranch in a remote part of Wyoming and Dad made sure I learned how to ride a horse by the time I was six-years-old. So no one was more surprised than me when Dad brought home a couple of four-wheel ATVs a few years ago and used them, instead of horses, to check on the cattle.
The ATV looked much easier to ride than a horse when I first saw it and I was anxious to try it out! Dad took off first and I followed. The terrain on our ranch is mountainous, however, so I soon found myself sideways on a steep hill and in danger of tipping over. Suddenly, this huge motorcycle on four wheels looked more dangerous than any horse I’d ever ridden.
To go headfirst down the steep hill and over the cliff appeared even more dangerous, so I continued to inch my way down sideways—it seemed the safer router. By now, Dad had stopped his ATV and was running toward me.
“Turn your wheels straight downhill,” he shouted. “Only by facing it head-on can you get safely down the cliff,” he said. Slowly, I turned the wheels straight down the steep embankment ahead of me, and the ATV started to move forward. I made it safely to the bottom.
Turns out that moving toward the threat was good advice from my Dad. While in new agent’s class at the FBI Academy, our instructors continually placed us in training situations where we were confronted with obstacles. For many of us, our first reaction was to either pull back or take circuitous routes around the obstacle. But the message by our instructors was this: Only by falling into the unknown are we be able to explore it (click to tweet).
To increase safety, move toward the unknown.
To increase chances for success, move toward the challenge.
The closer we get to the unknown, the more we can educate ourselves about it. The steps to follow and actions to take may not reveal themselves to us until leaders have moved closer to the situation. Mountain climbers understand that it’s impossible to know where to place fingers and feet by looking at a mountain from the bottom. Only by getting close enough to explore the cracks and crevices can they find places of safety.
A great deal of my FBI training was learning how to move toward the threat and focus on the opportunities presented by obstacles. Leaders can also learn to keep a mind strong when confronted with the unknown.
Here are four ways:
1. DEVELOP HABITS – When you are in the middle of a crisis, it is not the time to learn how to deal with obstacles. Go into training so that before obstacles present themselves you have cultivated courage, confidence, and discipline. When you make yourself aware of certain difficulties that are inevitable, you can prepare yourself mentally for confronting them head-on. Soldiers, warriors, and athletes appreciate the preparation it takes to mentally and physically meet the challenges ahead of them. They know it can be ugly, daunting, and grueling, but they are equipped.
2. CREATE THE RIGHT ATTITUDE –Most barriers are internal, not external. Internal lack of confidence can create the external challenges (click to tweet). The U.S. Army is using research that has shown most people, when confronted with adversity and the need to survive in fast-moving and challenging environments, will experience initial feelings of fear, frustration, and paralysis. Given sufficient amounts of time, however, they recover and continue to perform at the same level they were performing before the adversity.
At one end of the continuum there are a small percentage of people who do not bounce back and remain unable to cope with their circumstances without assistance. They often need counseling and can experience breakdowns.
On the other end of the continuum, however, are those with strong minds who not only survive adverse and traumatic situations, but also thrive and grow. They key is having the right attitude. People who have affirming thoughts about themselves and their abilities are more likely to survive the intense pressure of obstacles and adversity.
3. BUILD A SUPPORT SYSTEM – When the going gets tough, we all benefit from feeling connected with others. Sometimes just talking things through with someone who has had a similar experience can help guide you through a difficult time.
At the FBI Academy in Quantico, we were not allowed to leave the Marine Corps base for the first six weeks of our training. We were to use this time to bond and build relationships with other members of our new agent’s class. Humans are social creatures and we need emotional support from friends and family members. When confronting obstacles, having people you can trust by your side can make all the difference.
4. THINK SMALL – A truly daunting task can produce discouragement in the toughest. The trick is to focus on the little piece that is right in front of you. If you are bogged down with a huge task, break it down into small enough pieces so that you can set goals or markers of achievement for yourself. Then focus on your attention on that.
When confronted with changing environments and fierce challenges, you may need to leave your place of safety and press forward with the willpower of a strong mind. Nothing is impossible. It’s up to you to find a way. Even the most prepared and effective people can find themselves facing adversity and will need to find ways of turning obstacles into opportunities for growth.
How have you turned adversity into an opportunity?
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