Leadership lessons through adversity
At the Rio 2016 Olympics, Australian long-distance runner Eloise Wellings achieved a personal best in the 10,000m race – making her the top-placed Australian woman ever in the event. But she had a tough path to get there.
Wellings qualified for the Sydney Olympics at age 16, but had to withdraw due to injury. Repeated stress fractures caused her to miss the next two Olympics before she eventually stepped onto the track in London in 2012, fulfilling a dream she’d had since childhood.
“The first time I lined up in London I felt it was all worthwhile – I had finally achieved that dream. And to be able to perform at my best in Rio, I was less emotional about it – I was already an Olympian and no one could take that away from me.”
Taking control in dark times
For Wellings a combination of determination, levelheadedness and support from those around her got her through her darkest moments.
According to life coach Shannah Kennedy, those are some of the key things anyone needs when face-to-face with adversity.
Kennedy works with business owners, sportspeople and high-achieving professionals to create plans for dealing with setbacks, and build good habits to avoid burning out. Her coaching comes with personal experience – she spent her 20s working seven days a week, climbing the corporate ladder and exceeding all her goals. But her success came at a cost.
“I developed adrenal burnout and chronic fatigue,” Kennedy explains. “That was a year off work, and four more years to recover. I thought I was invincible, but I had to realise I’m not a machine.”
During this time, Kennedy re-evaluated her life.
“I had to create boundaries, and build better habits. I learned to say no, and developed preservation skills so I could perform again.”
That process formed the foundation of what she does today. Kennedy helps her clients foster confidence, optimism, flexibility and resilience, whether they’re athletes or entrepreneurs. But she knows from experience it can be hard to be optimistic in an adverse moment.
“That’s when you go to the mirror. And you say ‘I’ve got to be the driver here and get out of the passenger seat.’”
When you’re leading a team, how do you do that? Kennedy shares four of her tactics.
1. Train your brain
“As a leader you need to manage your own self talk,” Kennedy says. “Train your brain to recognise the path that will get you through a crisis.”
She suggests crafting a script that works for your mind. “If you tell yourself you are stressed, that it is a disaster, then this will be the outcome. So reframe your story – how would a calm, confident leader handle the situation?”
When injuries rocked her self-confidence, this is what helped Wellings move forward. “I stopped thinking too far into the future and just took one day at a time. You have to take the emotion out of it.”
Unconditional support from her close family and friends was a huge motivator, too. “I didn’t feel pressured and through that I learned how to change the conversations in my head.”
If the leader doesn’t have a healthy perspective on a situation, there’s no chance the team will either.
2. Be the voice of reason
Build trust in your team by leading with calm confidence. When you’re dealing with tough times, it’s important to be extra supportive, increase communication and build team cohesion.
“If the leader doesn’t have a healthy perspective on a situation, there’s no chance the team will either,” Kennedy says.
For Wellings, this support comes from her coach Nic. “If I ever doubt myself, I know what he’ll say. I can ask the dumb questions, show my vulnerability, and he’ll give me sound advice.”
3. Take setbacks as opportunities
Failure can make you question your goals and getting back on track can be difficult. As Wellings’ story attests, it takes bravery to reflect on and learn from your mistakes.
“Rather than having regrets, I learnt to accept the challenge and embrace the chance to use it for personal growth,” she says.
“Even if I couldn’t physically run or train I could challenge my own thinking and learn something new about myself.”
Some failure is inevitable. In business, it’s important to have back-up plans and get your team quickly working towards your goals again. Kennedy says leaders should welcome setbacks as a chance to upskill their teams.
“Even when you’re in the sweet spot things are going to change – it’s unavoidable,” she says. “When it happens, think: we can get through this. This is a bump in the road, not the end."
Adversity gives you two options. You can shrink back in defeat, or face it head on, smarter than you would have been without it. We all have that choice to make in any difficult situation.
4. Keep perspective
When they’re dealing with a challenging project, Kennedy reminds her clients to think about the bigger picture. “Remember why you come to work every day. Is it really about the outcome of this project?”
Today Wellings is an expert in looking at the bigger picture. She approaches adversity with the wisdom and perspective that only comes from battling setback after setback.
“Adversity gives you two options,” she says. “You can shrink back in defeat, or face it head on and come through stronger than you would have been without it. We all have that choice to make in any difficult situation.”
And as she points out, success is sweeter when you’ve overcome challenges that once seemed insurmountable. “On the starting line at the London Olympics, I thought of all those times I had to dig deep and overcome injury and self doubt… I felt stronger when I realised I got through it.”