Productive Leaders

Ph.D., CSP, CDR, US Navy Ret.,
CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame

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Adversity is Guaranteed, but Misery is Optional


I am fascinated by people who are resilient. One of the highlights of 2020 for me was the opportunity to have an in-depth conversation with Colonel Lee Ellis, USAF, who was a POW in Vietnam for around 5 ½ years. Lee is a good friend, and his latest book, Leadership DNA is about how we get to the core of our natural talents and how we embrace other people’s differences.


Yes, dealing with the virus crisis is challenging, but compared to time in the Hanoi Hilton, being quarantined in my house with good food (well OK, I was cooking so it wasn’t that good), but with food, a comfortable place to sleep, entertainment, and work I can do from where I live, doesn’t seem like much adversity.


Yes…I am lucky. Aside from my own cooking.


You’ve seen the stories where an average person successfully bounces back from great adversity. Resilient people know to move forward and start over again.


Why is it that some people seem to bounce back from any sort of adversity and others do not? Is it a choice? Is it fear? Is it actually different brain patterns?


Resilience is important. It’s the main character trait that determines whether someone is able to dust themselves off and get back into the game. I’m always amazed when I watch a football game, or a basketball game, or a baseball game, and the umpire or the referee will make a bad call and players just shake it off. My friend Alan Stein Jr, a basketball performance coach and author of the terrific book, Raise Your Game talks about how we are only as good as the next play, and because of that, we HAVE to get into the mindset that we can’t change the bad call and we have to just move on.


Some people are practically destroyed by misfortune and are very good at remaining a victim, but others come back even stronger from adversity. People who are very resilient have some unique and shared traits.


Research shows that resilient people are:


  1. Optimistic about the future. Current challenges are viewed as temporary. There is a real expectation that things will improve in the near future. The American Psychological Association defines an optimist as someone who looks at a difficult situation and is confident that they can make it better.
  2. Realistic about tough times. They realize that tough things are bound to happen. They accept it with a minimal amount of emotional fuss. They understand that getting upset has never been a genuine solution for any problem.
  3. Aware of their strengths. They have confidence in themselves, and believe they can be successful with their knowledge and abilities. They remember that it’s difficult to take proactive action if you expect to fail. They also know that taking action means the risk of failure is a possibility. They take action anyway.
  4. Focused on what they can influence. Resilient people understand that they can swim with the tide, they can swim against the tide, or they can float with the tide. They don’t worry about the things that are out of their influence or control. They don’t waste energy on things they cannot change. They focus on positively impacting the things that can be changed.
  5. Resilient people don’t wait for someone else to solve their problems. They take action and do everything they can to help themselves.
  6. Forward-looking and understand risks. People with a high-degree of resiliency look at the possibilities, and are willing to accept a reasonable degree of risk to create an even better future.


Do you have these traits? Are you willing to do something to improve your resiliency? It has been suggested that the ability to respond strongly in the face of adversity has a genetic component. Some people are simply born with a greater capacity to deal with challenging times than others.


However, we all have some capacity for rising to deal with adversity. For example, at some point, you’ve probably misplaced your keys in the morning. You probably didn’t instantly say to yourself, “Well the day is lost. I’m going back to bed.” You decided to look for your keys and continued looking until you found them.


Try these tips to strengthen your resilience:


  1. Force yourself to focus on the positives. Think about all the things you have in your favor. Things are better than you think. Focusing on your shortcomings is a good way to become stalled in your tracks.
  2. Think about the most resilient people you know. How would they handle your challenging situation? What can you learn from them?

    I confess that occasionally when I want to complain, I am reminded of Colonel Lee Ellis, Captain Charlie Plum, Captain Mike McGrath, and other POWs during Vietnam. And then I feel ridiculous for complaining about my small challenge.

  3. Focus on solutions. Think about how you can solve your dilemma. It is easy to fall into a pattern of complaining. When people are complaining, they are almost never finding solutions. Avoid wallowing over the dilemma, and focus on finding solutions.
  4. Call on friends and family for support. Everything seems easier with a little help and support. Make new friends when you have the opportunity. The stronger your network, the easier life is.


Adversity is a fact of life. But we can choose how we handle it. Just because you’ve struggled to overcome obstacles in the past doesn’t mean that pattern must continue.


Develop resilience to the highest possible level. Focus on solutions and the exciting future that awaits you!


It is easy to tell people to focus on solutions and the exciting future that awaits them, but sometimes even the most successful leaders need a little help. To develop resilience and make the right decisions, and see how to build resilience and take leadership to an even higher level, book an hour of coaching with Mary here: BookMe.Name/MaryKelly




  1. Lisa Braithwaite

    Great article, Mary! I do believe there’s a genetic component to resiliency. I’m a huge fan of the CliftonStrengths (used to be called StrengthsFinder) assessment. I have both Positivity and Adaptability in my top 5. I was born an optimist and I deal very well with change. So I was basically born resilient and I’ve bounced back from adversity time and time again. However, I also believe that anyone can cultivate resiliency and a positive attitude, and your tips are perfect for those who don’t naturally embrace change and positivity. Definitely sharing!

    • Mary Kelly

      Thank you for adding your perspective, Lisa!


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