There’s an old slogan I like from the .com period "Even a turkey can fly in a hurricane". I keep it on my wall, as it is good to remember. What it was suggesting is that any half-baked idea can get up and running and seemingly thrive in the short term with a tail wind of irrational enthusiasm and optimistic investment. Reality bites though when the tail wind stops. Adversity – in the case of the .com period when the bubble burst – is actually where people and enterprises are measured.
Dealing with adversity and creating successful businesses in adverse times is where great leadership really shows up. For all the accolades heaped on Steve Jobs, what we now tend to forget is that when he came back to Apple in 1997 the company was in really bad shape. As late as 2002 analysts and industry experts were predicting its demise. Michael Dell famously said he believed Apple should close up shop and give its money back to its shareholders. Jobs of course proved him and everyone else wrong. Jobs thrived on adversity.
So how do you turn adversity to your advantage?
The key issue is how you use the energy. When adversity hits there are two simultaneous reactions in human beings – an emotional reaction and a cognitive one.
What we tend to do is either ignore or try and dampen down the emotional reaction – and work on the thinking. Emotion is energy though and energy will find a usage. This is where fear and cynicism show up, the toxic effects of unused energy in a negative frame. What you actually need to do is draw on it, give oxygen to the fire – emotional energy, especially the raw energy of pain, is a very powerful force.
The origins of the recent highly successful NetFlix drama ‘House of Cards’ is a great example of how to use the raw emotional energy of adversity to positive effect.
Back in the 1987 Michael Dobbs was working as a speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher, who was on her way to a record third term as UK Prime Minister. Even though the polls suggested a landslide the legendary ‘Iron Lady’ was worried, and she fired the brilliant Dobbs in one her infamous knee jerk reactions. Dobbs was devastated and took a couple of weeks holiday to try and recover. Hanging out by the poolside Dobbs found himself furious at how he had been treated but he was also typically British and repressed so the best he could do was write ‘F U’ on a napkin. Over the course of the next few days this started to morph into an idea. F U became Francis Urquhart, who became the central character in what would become his best selling political novel ‘House of Cards’. This was then made into the highly successful BBC drama with the same name and central character. Twenty years later Francis Urquhart then morphed into Francis Underwood, another F U, in the Netflix remake with Kevin Spacey. As Mr. Dobbs put it – this use of F U has kept his family in very good stead.
What Dobbs did was use his adversity as emotional leverage to create something new. He didn’t try and dampen down his feelings, instead he used them as a power source.
The old maxim “Don’t get mad, get even” couldn’t be more wrong. Get mad, and get into action. As a leader your job is to use that energy while reframing the collective thinking away from the problem, and look at how to focus attention onto the creation of something new – to use the fire to disrupt and attack conventional thinking and models.
The next few years look like they are going to be unpredictable and choppy, your people will be often shaken up and worried. Don’t try and make them feel better. Make them use that emotional energy to do something new and different. Whatever the problem, like Michael Dobb's F U, the raw energy of adversity is a gift.