Leaders Library: When the Obstacle is the Way

Harry S. Truman said, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” Our Leaders Library series gives me the opportunity to share the books and articles that I think are worth your attention. I would love for this to spark an interactive conversation – the Front and Centered version of a virtual book club!

I just finished my fourth book, The Obstacle is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday. The author asks: will you be blocked by obstacles, or will you advance through or over them?life is about how you frame it

I loved the book because I Iove the message. Life is about how you frame it. How do you handle setbacks, adversity and difficulty? How do you manage and lead through the tough moments?

My dad used to say, “Life is not always fair; deal with it. Don’t waste time complaining about it.” Sometimes I fall short of my dad’s advice. Though I may limit the audience to my family or close friends, from time to time, I do a little healthy complaining to get things off my chest. After all, I’m human.

But recently, I was really put to the test. And I was able to apply my dad’s advice and the ideas and concepts of the book.

When overcoming the obstacle is the obstacle

It was a tough month in the Chiaradonna household. My son came down with mononucleosis. I never had mono, so I didn’t know what to expect, but I was surprised at how debilitating it truly is.

I don’t’ know if there’s a good time to get mono, but for my son, there could not have been a worse time. He is in his junior year of high school. His prom was approaching. He was running for class officer. He is studying for the ACT and exam time was quickly approaching. He’s in the middle of his favorite sport (baseball), during the height of college recruiting and he had just won the starting position on the varsity team. It just didn’t seem “fair. ”

As a parent, I wanted to make him feel better. I wanted to make it all go away, but I couldn’t. I had no control over the illness. The only thing within our control was how we would frame it for him.

So my wife and I put on a brave face, pulled ourselves together, and did not let it weigh us down. We talked and worried about how our son would feel physically and react emotionally to the setback. Even as the grown-ups in the situation, we were emotional about the illness ourselves; after all, it was our son and he was extremely sick. But as the saying goes, kids are far more resilient than adults and we were surprised and impressed by his resolve and persistence.

The fact that I had recently read Holiday’s book helped me through this situation. Prior to reading it, I’m not sure I would have had as much ability to help my son overcome the obstacle. If I’m being honest with myself (and all of you) – I would have likely spent more time focusing on the hurdles it presented and the hopelessness it had the ability to generate for a 17-year-old at the top of his high school game. But as it turns out, I was living an opportunity to turn a trial into a triumph just as the book’s author described.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “The things that hurt, instruct.”

Collectively, the book and my son’s illness taught me some valuable life lessons that we are never too old to be reminded of:

  • Check yourself…and your team. Do not hide your emotions or act like they don’t exist; control them. This holds true for a team you are leading. Don’t force the team or person to avoid their emotions; they are a healthy and necessary part of life. The goal is not avoidance, but control. Help the individual or the team you are leading to acknowledge and control their emotions.
  • Focus on observation and suspend mental perception. You need time to clearly understand what you are seeing. Perception plays a big role in how you frame it.
  • Perspective. Where the head goes, the body follows. Get the right perspective.
  • Focus on what’s within your control. Often, you cannot control the situation, but you can control how you react to the situation. In our son’s case, my wife chose to focus on what methods and caretaking we could employ to help improve his recovery.
  • Be patient and open to learning. When you are leading others (in this case, our son), you need to leave room and patience for the process of education. Let questions breathe. What is this illness? How long will it last? Don’t get paralyzed in the why or the explanations. Focus on understanding and then moving.
  • Be the hero in your story. There is a story we will tell about the issues or challenges we face. Will your story be focused on the problem or the solution?
  • There are bigger problems out there. Put your issue in context. Given the larger world around us, how does this issue or challenge fit? How material is it? This truly helps a person frame it. It really helped our son. In the moment, it felt enormous, but in the grand scheme of things, it is small. This allowed him to turn the corner of obsessing over “why me, why now” and helped him move toward what could be done.
  • Engage in directed action. You need to create action with purpose and vision. In our son’s case, it was focused on rest and diet. He could not swallow, so my wife got up early every day and made fruit and veggie shakes. A 17-year-old eating vegetables is normally not a likely scenario, but any action leading to getting back to normal was motivational to him.
  • Don’t give up. Stay moving, adapt and iterate until you feel you are progressing toward the desired outcome.
  • Trust the process. Everything has a process. Trust the process and grow along the way.

Turning lemons into lemonade

I’m happy to report, my son is back. He is doing what he loves to do: socializing, learning and playing baseball. And somehow in the midst of this, he still won the class officer role of student council vice president. The school has been wonderful, the team is great, but the best part is that his attitude and perspective on life is different. In fact, he is more aware of his body and nutrition now and continuing to take better care of himself. I do not think his level of self-awareness would be this high had he not experienced such an “obstacle.”

What is preventing you and the business you run from doing what you want to do? What are the perceived “obstacles” and how can you work with your team to reframe them and grow?