The Reason Why Great Sailors ARE Made in Rough Waters

“Adversity is the mother of progress.”
   Mahatma Gandhi

Many in my field of executive and organization development glibly throw phrases around in workshops like “Great sailors are made in rough waters” to make the point that leaders develop most through how they handle challenging situations. While using phrases like this may make us come across as insightful to others, we don’t always know the substance behind the point being made.  I am going to give you the reason why great sailors are made in rough waters later in the blog, but first let me provide some preamble as a segue.

Instinctively we all know that tough challenging situations and experiences, whether planned as stretch assignments or unexpectedly appear, are the fuel for accelerated leadership development.  Even Confucius, several hundred years ago, knew this when he said, The man of virtue makes the difficulty to be overcome his first business, and success only a subsequent consideration.  A few years ago CCL (Center for Creative Leadership) provided a clear set of criteria to define what a developmental experience is for leaders.  The criteria involves elements such as doing something for the first time where success and failure are both possible, needing to collaborate with a diverse (different in culture and style) set of team members, meeting an aggressive deadline with a large volume of work or having to achieve results through influence versus positional authority.  Basically, the premise here is that experiences that place leaders out of their comfort zone are inherently developmental.  No one would dispute this…but do we really know why?  Fitness training might provide an apt analogy.  Working a muscle group in the gym to the point of fatigue is what enables new muscle fibers to grow, over time producing a new level of strength and agility.  While a good analogy in principle, this still doesn’t provide insight into the psychology behind leadership development.

Richard Leider, founder and managing director of the Inventure Group, and a friend and mentor to me, always used to say “life is an error-making and error-correcting process.”   The premise here is that we experience greater development through how we handle adversity (i.e. “rough waters”), mishaps and mistakes than when things are going smoothly, provided of course, that we have good self-awareness and self-regulation. Alas, another glib phrase I use and agree with, although perhaps it begins to get closer to an answer.

However, I have found what I think is the true answer as to why adverse, challenging situations are developmental.  I decided to consult with some work from one of my favourite authors, Malcolm Gladwell and his recent book entitled David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.  For those unfamiliar with Gladwell, he is a Winnipeg-born and raised (a city in western Canada) writer who resides in New York and is a staff writer for the New Yorker and best-selling author of Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers and What The Dog Saw.  Malcolm, in his iconoclastic manner, has a knack for illuminating conventional situations with unconventional thinking.  In his recent book he recounts a study conducted by a group of UK social psychologists during the Second World War on the impact of the incessant Nazi air force Blitz on London during eight months in 1940.  When the UK accepted the inevitability of the Nazi aerial attacks, the prediction was mass carnage, panic, and basic societal destruction. However, the panic never came despite the fact that millions of buildings were destroyed, entire neighborhoods were laid to waste, over a million people lost their homes, 40,000 people died and another 46,000 were injured.  No one showed up at the psychiatric hospitals that were set up to handle what military planners thought would be a mass intake.  Canadian psychiatrist J.T, MacCurdy later summarized the study in his book called The Structure of Morale.  He noted three groups of reaction to a bomb raids: people killed by the blast, those who were injured or wounded by the blast but lived – he called these near misses, and finally those who were aware of the bombs and attack but suffered no direct physical consequence – he called these remote misses. What he found was that, while the near misses were traumatized, the remote misses experienced a “feeling of excitement with a flavour of invulnerability.”  Gladwell writes, “So why were Londoners so unfazed by the Blitz? Because forty thousand deaths and forty-six thousand injuries – spread across a metropolitan area of more than eight million people – means that there were many more remote misses who were emboldened by the experience of being bombed than there were near misses who were traumatized by it.”  This observation has also been evidenced in other countries that have faced bombing attacks.  “Rough water” adversity type experiences that we survive unscathed from actually embolden us and increase our sense of invincibility, i.e. confidence in ourselves and our leadership.

Okay maybe this is not the complete answer.  I am sure in the days ahead neuroscientists will reveal what parts of the brain “light up” in those who are remote misses when facing a bombing and that will get us closer to the true answer.  In the meantime, I can say with even more confidence that “Great sailors ARE made in rough waters.”  As a summary thought, and at the risk of yet another glib phrase, I will leave you with a Danish Proverb I came across, “The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man (or woman) be perfected without trials.”

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