For the POWs in the Vietnam War, facing serious trials became a way of life. In that bleak existence locked up and isolated in a communist prison camp for five, six, seven and even eight years, every day had its challenges. The POWs had to depend on their enemy for the meager food that kept them alive. The same sinister enemy used isolation, beatings, and torture in their attempts to exploit them and make them into propaganda pawns for the communist party. The diet was pitiful and medical care was virtually non-existent. Yet the POWs emerged stronger, becoming successful military leaders, congressmen, teachers, lawyers, doctors, counselors, businessmen, and even a Senator and Presidential candidate. They learned to treasure the trials of their hardship.
Not many will have to contend with the tribulations of POW life, but everyone faces hardships and disappointments. For some it’s a work or career crisis. Layoffs and home foreclosures of recent years have cut deep, leaving many in a severe financial crisis that may worsen, with some experts saying that home prices will go down further before we see a slow recovery. For others it’s a health crisis or perhaps a struggling teen, or a relationship that has gone sour. At some point, we all face the pain of trials. When you’re in dark times or caught up in the chaos of a battle, it isn’t easy to see the treasure in your trials. Here are some tips to help you refocus toward not only your goals but the true gold found in trials.
Go Deep—Find Meaning and Make Changes
Adversity builds character by forcing us to face our deepest beliefs and values. In the crucibles of life, when all the pretend stuff melts away it’s much easier to clarify what is really important and what is not. We have the opportunity to find meaning in our suffering and meaning is a treasure worth finding.
The transformation that we most need isn’t very inviting in good times, but in difficult times our pain can give us the energy and motivation to change our attitudes and behaviors. As Victor Frankl put it, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” The painful struggles that we would never choose often afford the greatest opportunity for personal growth, and personal growth is the only path to genuine leadership development.
Go Long—Gain Wisdom and Experience
Leadership research confirms that the experience of overcoming difficulties is not only transformational; making us stronger, but it also makes us wiser and better suited for the challenges of leadership. Wisdom gained through the experience of hard times helps us better navigate future minefields. Persevering through tough times also increases our confidence, preparing us for future challenges that will surely come. On the other hand, leaders devoid of crucible experiences are likely to be overly confident about their ideas, and surprisingly more susceptible to fears. Courageously facing our fears in the difficult times gives us both humility and real confidence. The wisdom garnered in hard times about ourselves and life becomes the wisdom that guides us into a better future. Additionally, the difficult trials generate strong emotional memories that stay with us longer and are more easily accessed—gold that we don’t have to search so hard to find.
Don’t Go It Alone
When you are in a battle, you don’t want to be alone—you need supporters in your corner—people who care about you and have your back. They can provide encouragement when your spirit is down and your hope is sagging. Encouragement can provide vital energy for bouncing back and continuing to persevere. Sometimes a shared idea or a new perspective on a problem can make all the difference. Just knowing someone is near—that you are not standing alone—can provide the needed inspiration, courage, and energy to persevere, even when everything in you is saying it’s too tough to keep going. Every soldier, sailor, airman, and marine knows it’s not good to fight alone. The same is true for all of us. We must stay connected to be resilient and bounce back from trials. The lingering treasure is that when you have gone through the fire with someone, usually a bond is formed that brings a special relationship for a lifetime.
More than likely, you have already passed through some tough times in your life. It may be helpful to look back and see the treasure that you gained from those past challenges. What was the meaning you gained through those trials? What did you learn about yourself that may be helpful now? What changes did you make then? Who walked with you?
You have a choice. You can let your trials bury you or you can dig for the treasure in them. If you want to discover the gold in your current pit, then answer these questions: How can you find meaning in your current trial? What are you learning about yourself? What changes do you need to make now—in your attitude, mindset or behaviors? What wisdom points are you learning in your current situation that will help you in the future? Who is walking with you through this fire to provide support? If you follow these tips, someday, looking back, you will see enormous value in your trials.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lee Ellis is a speaker and the author of Leading With Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton, in which he shares his experiences as a Vietnam POW and highlights leadership lessons learned in the camps. As president of Leadership Freedom, a leadership and team development consulting and coaching company, Lee consults with Fortune 500 senior executives in the areas of hiring, teambuilding, executive development and succession planning. For more information, please visit www.leadingwithhonor.com.