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Irma Becerra is president of Marymount University, a comprehensive doctorate-granting university known for its innovative curriculum.
Adversity is a given in the human experience. But our greatest difficulties afford us the most valuable life lessons. When we look at challenges as learning experiences, setbacks become opportunities, hurdles to clear rather than roadblocks in our path.
No stranger to adversity, I left my homeland of Cuba in my parents’ arms as an infant at a time of great uncertainty and political unrest. We arrived in the United States with no possessions or money since my parents intended to return home as soon as it was safe to do so. Their plans were dashed by Castro’s regime, leaving them to begin life in America with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
I am grateful for the challenges and setbacks I faced early in life. Every hardship I survived left me with crucial life skills to conquer my fears and push past many barriers. The challenging experiences of my formative years instilled in me the strength, wisdom and patience to succeed. And, perhaps most importantly, I learned to view setbacks as opportunities and adapt accordingly.
The ability to pivot when faced with setbacks is an invaluable leadership skill, and one that I rely on daily. This ability was built on the knowledge and passion gained from my childhood experiences, but also reinforced by my studies. My deep interest in building resilient organizations, systems and processes led to gaining expertise that I have captured in my publications on knowledge management. In my professional and personal life, I’ve often reframed complex obstacles into opportunities, first as an electrical engineer, later as a professor and now as a university president. Here are some tips to help you reframe obstacles in your own leadership.
Harness the Power of Integrative Thinking
Typically, when solving problems, leaders seek to choose one among competing solutions. Roger Martin’s concept of integrative thinking offers an alternative: using aspects of several opposing possible solutions. One of the best ways for leaders to cultivate integrative thinking skills is to discuss difficult issues among their organizational leads and encourage them to express diverse perspectives to reframe a problem. Varied perspectives often lead to new solutions that merge multiple and sometimes opposing ideas.
I know from experience that tackling challenging barriers together strengthens resolve, increases tenacity and builds confidence within an organization. When assessing complex challenges as a university president, I prioritize solutions that serve our students and different stakeholders’ immediate and future needs. Frequently I find that a group effort is needed to solve these complex problems. Creating the structures that encourage collaboration is what is needed for successful outcomes.
Stay Positive and Avoid Overthinking
Set a positive precedent by framing complex scenarios as opportunities from the start. Mindset matters when barriers arise, and clarity of thought dramatically increases our ability to overcome bumps in the road. Modeling a growth mindset is a powerful tool for leaders since it encourages others to stretch their abilities and push boundaries. Being confident in this ability breeds an attitude of continual improvement, one which leaders should embrace if they want to turn obstacles into opportunities.
There is power in moving swiftly from analysis to action. Therefore, I avoid overthinking when considering delicate situations or complicated scenarios. However, the best course of action isn’t always clear when you’re stuck on an obstacle: Sometimes the best action is no action at all. Develop the habit of walking away from a problem to resist executing a solution immediately or prematurely. By doing so, you allow yourself the headspace to identify any possible unforeseen adverse consequences.
Encourage Innovation and Creativity
A mindset geared toward lifelong learning helps immensely in my leadership role. Problem-solving, innovation and creativity go hand-in-hand, so never hesitate to lean into new and inventive approaches when faced with complicated issues. And always view setbacks through a lens of patience and objectivity.
At the same time, leaders must be decisive. If a solution isn’t working, change your approach until you address at least 80% of the problem. And remember to ask for help when needed because even the best leaders sometimes need the advice of experts and the support of team members.
Finally, I cannot stress enough the crucial need for work-life balance. Optimal rest, a healthy diet and daily exercise are vital to offset the stress leaders experience. And, of course, remember to take time for friends and family, and try to laugh daily!
Looking back on my life, I wouldn’t trade a single setback experienced along the way. Each one provided an opportunity for me to emerge stronger, wiser and better equipped to succeed. And without question, my hard-earned adaptability and resiliency contribute significantly to my ability to lead today with courage and conviction.
As a university president, I regularly remind my students that what matters most in life is how we bounce back from adversity. After all, with each setback we work through, we acquire more tools to master a life filled with obstacles turned into opportunities. Each barrier you have overcome has prepared you to be the great leader you are today!