This post is late as I was leading a retreat that was the completion of an eighteen-month mentoring process with 45 high capacity leaders and I am reflecting as I write. Through experiencing these four days together, I was especially struck by my comrades’ vulnerable stories of adversity they had been encountering. As I listened to each one and witnessed the wrestling, strengthening, and resiliency that was resulting I was reminded particularly of chapter ten in The Rabbit Hole of Leadership. It’s author, Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, boasts an impressive biography that infers he has exhaustive knowledge and experience in leadership, but it was actually this chapter that revealed he is not an academic theorist, but a scholar practitioner. No one writes about adversity as he did without experiencing it.
“One who gains strength by overcoming obstacles possesses the only strength which can overcome adversity.” He describes the story of Job in scripture and characterizes it as one of “endurance, courage, and character, not of bitterness or vindictiveness. Job shows us the importance of not giving up or giving in – even in the darkest of times. He also demonstrates that adversity can be a great educator. Without adversity, we do not really know what we are all about nor do we appreciate the limits of our character.” The author goes on to talk about Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, both heroes and inspiring agents of leadership through adversity. Churchill exhorts us to never, never, never give up or given in to anything “except to convictions of honour and good sense.” Kets de Vries encapsulates his remarks by saying, “Challenges defined them, strengthened them, and brought out the best in their character. Adversity boosted their effectiveness as leaders.”
In the last year I have experienced some of the greatest testing of my character and leadership that I have known and I have walked openly and processed with these 45 leaders to model and teach what I was learning and growing in. Kets de Vries explains that shadowing is a powerfully effective way for people to learn as they experience the life of an executive and organization one leads, both become the classroom. As I met monthly with this group of leaders we engaged a myriad of leadership topics and I was able to discuss real case studies I had lived and led through and they were able dissect the situations and ask any questions and get experiential answers. They encountered the processing I have walked through in my own grief in recent months, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and this week observed my lessons on the other side of it all. The pressure of adversity reveals the truth of who we are, shows us areas of growth to focus on, and gives opportunity for the greatest leadership to be exhibited. I have come to believe obstacles, adversity and suffering are essential to developing healthy, resilient leaders and The Rabbit Hole of Leadership speaks of the same.
As we concluded the retreat today, I was given a stack of cards and notes written by the participants. I have just read these on the plane and reaped the greatest reward I have known in ministry. It was not the lessons of leading and developing organizational culture, structure or systems that impacted them most, it was walking closely with me, observing my life and marriage as my husband and I interacted and shared our 40-year relationship as leaders living together. It was knowing I see each one of them and believe in them, it was a non-anxious presence in tense moments, it was vulnerability and transparency about my weaknesses and struggles as well as my strengths and successes. I commissioned each of them today and felt the depth of Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, “Like a nursing mother caring for her own children, with such affection for you we were happy to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become dear to us.”
This photo is Kets de Vries with one of my leadership mentors, Frances Hesselbein. She has inspired me through her writing and videos. Her rich experience leading The Girl Scouts and the Peter Drucker Foundation, which later became the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute, and her emphases on ethics, diversity and values-based leadership has made her a role model for many. She too is a leader who has known adversity and personal loss. Within two years of taking on the challenge as CEO of The Girl Scouts, Frances experienced the sudden death of her husband after his just being diagnosed with a brain tumor. She has also experienced health challenges since falling face first on a marble floor in 2013 yet her resilience is seen in her response to a colleague announcing his retirement, “You and I do not retire, you and I are called to serve, and we will serve until the pine box lid is closed upon us.” This focus on mission is unquestionable in her tireless pursuits and a challenge when tempted to quit.
There’s pain as one falls through the rabbit hole of leadership, but the process is transformative if we allow it to do its perfect work. Our world is in need of leaders who will become better not bitter, who will exude courage through adversity, and will lead on with grit and grace. There is a cloud of witnesses who have modeled how it is done: Job, Churchill, Mandela, Lincoln, Hesselbein and Kets de Vries. May our names be added to this extraordinary company.
 Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, Down the Rabbit Hole of Leadership: Leadership Pathology in Everyday Life (Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature Switzerland AG, 2019), Kindle Loc. 1289.
 Ibid., Kindle Loc. 1306.
 Ibid., Kindle Loc. 1316.
 Ibid., Kindle Loc. 1330.
 I Thessalonians 2:7-8 NET