Leverage Obstacles For Success

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Several years ago, when the US entered the “great recession”, an advisor to the President made a comment that has now become part of our discourse: “Don’t let a crisis go to waste”. Ryan Holiday, in The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph makes the point that it doesn’t have to be a crisis for us to actually benefit from overcoming obstacles. Given that life, both business and personal, is full of challenges – in the form of obstacles to “quickly” getting to the goal, it’s a lesson we all should heed.  As Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel commented: “Bad companies are destroyed by crises. Good companies survive them. Great companies are improved by them.” Some of our best ideas are the result of obstacles illuminating new options.

There are several ways to leverage obstacles for greater success. Here are some tips for how to do so:

  • Expand your perception to see the entire context; there usually is more to what’s happening than what’s immediately in front of us.
  • Frame the issue by taking this larger context into account when making your interpretation

Allegedly, Socrates had a mean, nagging wife. Yet he also said that being married to her was good practice for philosophy!  When Napoleon and Hitler sought to attack Russia, instead of rigidly protecting their borders, the Russians retreated to the interior of their country and let the winter’s impact on the attacker’s bog them down in battles far from home and wear them down.

One way is to turn the negative into a positive by focusing on the positive through the “power of opposites”. Think of the strategies used by Gandhi and Martin Luther King when marching: faced with violence by the police, they chose to be peaceful. Why? Because they understood that by doing so, they expose the hate and violence of the oppressor as being indefensible and evil attributes; once exposed many people would realize they could no longer support these attributes.

Another way is to reframe your own capacity to overcome obstacles. By taking on the challenges you learn about strengths you may not have realized you have. Remember, we don’t realize how important perseverance, force of purpose, indomitable will is until we’re threatened and these attributes provide the winning advantage.

Finally, leaders can reframe the episode as not just affecting them – but impacting on others. “ If I can’t solve this for myself, how can I at least make this better for other people?” “If not for me, them others I’m leading might later find themselves in a similar situation.”

So how do you leverage obstacles for greater success? Share your experiences.