Leadership and Adversity – Overcoming Adversity and Becoming a Leader – Framework


My mental model of leadership was formulated in my post-World War II youth. During my childhood, between the ages of nine and twenty, my concept of leadership consisted of an eclectic combination of role models gleaned from dozens of biographies, including those of political and military leaders, “captains of industry,” even “robber barons,” and sports coaches. Even before I was a teenager, I was fascinated by biographies of the larger than life, “rags-to-riches” tycoons of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Vanderbilt, Morgan, DuPont, Goodyear, Edison, Ford, Huntington, Carnegie, and Stanford, as well as those of more recent empire builders and moguls Watson and Sloan.

It was during this early period of my life that I first became acquainted with the work of the best-selling author of biographies, James MacGregor Burns. I read several of his political biographies, and was particularly intrigued by his (1956) in-depth biography of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s early years, as well as his (1960) definitive political biography of John F. Kennedy. As a young adult, I read Volume II of Burns’ (1970) Franklin D. Roosevelt second biography, which detailed FDR’s World War II years. I eagerly read the political biographies of Winston Churchill, Jefferson Davis, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, George Washington, and Woodrow Wilson. I also devoured biographies of military leaders such as George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, along with that of Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the British general who distinguished himself in the South African Boer Wars, and also founded the World Boy Scouting movement.

As a teenager and young adult I read about current leaders in news magazines and witnessed as a new breed of business leader emerged on television, including Sam Walton, Henry Ford II, the Bass Brothers, H. Ross Perot, Lee Iacocca, J. Willard Marriott, and Howard Hughes. I grew up watching great actors on the “silver screen,” such as Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck, and George C. Scott, who brought to life the characters of Moses, Michelangelo, Douglas MacArthur, and George Patton. I also grew to admire coaches John Wooden and Vince Lombardi as leaders and builders of young men, because they encouraged their players to become upstanding total persons and true team players, not just outstanding individual basketball or football players.

All of the biographies, magazine articles, movie portrayals, and television coverage of leaders helped to shape my mental model and frame my concept of leadership, in addition to providing insight into how those leaders coped with the drama and trauma of life, succeeding in spite of adversity, obstacles, or challenges. I was particularly intrigued by John F. Kennedy’s (1956) profiles of courageous leaders. These stories may have subconsciously influenced my interest in Horatio Alger-type stories. The biographies and the articles provided insights into the lives of leaders who overcame obstacles or dealt with adversity. These early influences laid the foundation for my admiration of those who succeeded despite having to overcome obstacles, tragedy, or adversity.

I have always sought to help those in need, even from an early age. I personally interviewed the head of the local Goodwill organization to do background research on an essay I was writing for high school. I was honored, and humbled, to have won President Lyndon Johnson’s National “Hire the Handicapped Essay” contest at age 17, and have my award-winning essay published.

My early background, combined with my twenty years of senior business leadership experience, my masters in management degree, and my doctoral studies in leadership, led me to the selection of my topic dealing with the overcoming adversity and shaping of prominent leaders.

I agree with Dr. Warren Bennis (1989), who observed that “leaders learn by leading, and they learn best in the face of obstacles. As weather shapes mountains, problems shape leaders” (p. 146).

My research was specifically focused on the way certain events, obstacles, or adversity affected and possibly shaped prominent leaders. I investigated through face to face interviews with prominent leaders to research the relationship between overcoming adversity and becoming a successful and accomplished leader. I personally interviewed sixteen prominent leaders face to face, using the science of hermeneutic phenomenological, to do an investigation that concentrated on the lived experiences of nine prominent leaders. I sought their thoughts, stories, and real-life examples.

My interview questions were designed to draw out the participants’ experiences on a range of interests. I encouraged them to identify the most important events in their lives. I asked them specifically to share the effects of the events, obstacle, or adversity in their youth and adult lives that shaped them. I also attempted to call forth the resources within themselves that they drew upon to overcome obstacles. Finally, I questioned them as to whether their experiences with overcoming adversity in any way impacted their development, specifically their development as a leader.

Since this study probed how events, obstacles, or adversity have shaped prominent leaders, I was especially interested in the participants’ mental models of leadership. Senge (1990) discussed mental models as balancing inquiry and advocacy. My own conception of leadership, having a clear vision of the future, has been articulated by Fairhurst and Sarr (1996). They focused an entire chapter on the topic, and summarized it with the statement that “visions are the foundation of leadership” (p. 78).

Ascertaining the participants’ mental model was an important step, but it does not answer the question of “what makes a leader.” This has been a documented subject of debate for over two thousand years, with hundreds of books dedicated to the topic, including works by Plato (387b.c./1945) and Niccolo Machiavelli (1513/1962). Rost (1991) questioned how we can build leaders when there is no consistent, accepted, and universal definition of leadership (p. 6). Burns (1978) stated that “leadership is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth” (p. 2).

Many people have attempted to define leadership. Pfeiffer (1977) noted that many definitions of leadership are ambiguous. Leadership theorists simply don’t agree on why it occurs, if or how it is developed, or how it should be assessed (pp. 104-112). Cronin (1980) offered a simple and succinct definition of leadership: “the capacity to make things happen that would not have otherwise happened” (p. 392). Rost (1991) attempted to develop a post-industrial definition. Reviewing the essential elements of leadership, Rost asserted that an “essential element flowing from the definition of leadership is that the people involved in this relationship are leaders and followers” (p. 107). Bass and Stogdill (1990) noted that “the understanding of leadership has figured strongly in the quest for knowledge” (p. 3).

One of the first modern theories about leadership was the “Great Man” theory, found in nineteenth century literature. This theory includes Nietzsche’s (1883/1974) “Ubermensch” or “Superman” concept. Nietzsche’s protagonist was determined, inner-directed, and charismatic. In the early twentieth century, Weber (1924/1947) posited that charisma was a personal characteristic of many leaders.

Feiner (2004), a Professor at Columbia University’s School of Business, asked second-year MBA students and experienced managers to “name figures, living or dead, who embody great leadership” (pp. 8-9). In response, they consistently named Churchill, Gandhi, Patton, Lincoln, Kennedy, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Martin Luther King Jr. Some also included Margaret Thatcher and Jack Welch. Both the students and managers explained that these leaders “are great speakers, they have a clear vision, they’ve overcome adversity, [and] they make difficult decisions single-handedly” (p. 10).

On the surface, it may seem as though the participants in Feiner’s (2004) study were using the “Great Man” theory. Upon closer examination, however, it appears that this is not the case. It is important to note that they named specific core traits, including communication skills, vision, and overcoming adversity (pp. 10-11).

The concept of shaping leaders may be described as analogous to the refining of metals to remove impurities, a process requiring great heat and great stress on the raw material. Overcoming adversities is not easy, but it can be done.