Leadership Character Forged in Adversity

Posted On: December 22

In the next few weeks, I will do my annual video about what I believe you should focus on for the coming year. Although I think things will be better in 2021, it’s still going to be difficult. So, I thought this article from my good friend Joseph Michelli would give you valuable ideas on how to lead through adversity.

Joseph has written some of the best books I’ve ever read, including “The New Gold Standard: 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience Courtesy of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company”, “The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary into Extraordinary” and “Driven to Delight: Delivering World-Class Customer Experience the Mercedes-Benz Way.” His new book, “Stronger Through Adversity,” is based on his interviews with top business leaders worldwide about what they have learned from leading in these extremely challenging times. I’m sure you will find his ideas helpful.


Leadership Character Forged in Adversity

by Joseph Michelli

Let me guess; you had a well-develop strategic plan and business roadmap in place as you entered 2020. Let me also assume COVID-19, a sub-microscopic infectious agent, roughly 1/1000 the width of a human hair, blindsided you and rendered your plan and roadmap irrelevant. You probably also increased your use of words and phrases like “unprecedented,” “pivot,” “new normal,” and “Zoom fatigue.”

As the pandemic took hold, I began observing and talking with my clients (mostly C-suite level leaders in Fortune 500 companies) about their efforts to take care of their people, their customers, and their business’s sustainability. In short order, I had spoken to more than 140 plus senior leaders from for-profit, nonprofit, and public safety organizations. These individuals candidly shared the fears, insights, and strategies they were using to move through uncertainty with the hope of positioning themselves for a “better than normal/post-COVID” world. These individuals included:


My conversations with these leaders resulted in a book titled Stronger Through Adversity.  Here are a few insights that I shared in the book:

  • John Donne was right; no person is an island – In the pandemic, effective leaders reached out to peers and even competitors to share ideas and best practices for maintaining short-term and long-term viability
  • The humble and authentic prevail – With social distancing, and technology-mediated customer interactions, and many team members working remotely, many leaders found themselves becoming more transparent and authentic in their interactions. They were more inclined to admit what they did not know, acknowledge shortcomings, and bring more of their humanity to work.
  • You can communicate too much (but you probably aren’t) – Teams need regular communication, honest information, and a tone of realistic optimism during crises. They also are bombarded with conjecture and misinformation, so each message should be thoughtful, purposeful, and congruent with other messages being shared.
  • Listen twice as much as you speak – Leaders emphasized the heightened importance of formal and informal listening (e.g., pulse surveys, consumer research, group brainstorming, and one-to-one conversations).
  • Seek understanding and empathy – For successful crisis leaders, listening occurred on two levels: a) active listening to gain understanding (e.g., paraphrasing) and b) hypothesizing about the feelings behind the words. (e.g., empathizing).
  • Crisis uncovers the character of heroes – Many leaders saw COVID as an opportunity to forge a legacy of lasting impact. This perspective is captured in a letter written by former first lady Abigail Adams to her son John Quincy Adams. She shared, “When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life, and form the character of the hero.”


What lessons have you affirmed or learned during the pandemic? How have those learnings positioned you for success during and after COVID? More importantly, has your heart been animated? Are you awakening qualities that lay dormant, and are you forging your character such that you are stronger through adversity?


If you’d like to learn more about Stronger Through Adversity, please visit StrongerThroughAdversity.com.



Joseph Michelli, Ph.D., is a certified customer experience and speaking professional. He is also Global Guru’s #1 US-based customer service expert and the author of ten business books about companies like Airbnb, Starbucks, Zappos, Mercedes-Benz, and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company. In addition to being a Wall Street Journal and New York Times #1 bestselling author, Joseph helps leaders and frontline team members drive customer loyalty and referrals.

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