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Procurement Perspectives: Adversity can be a building block to success

Stephen Bauld
Procurement Perspectives: Adversity can be a building block to success

Many organizations have been faced with great challenges during the emergence of COVID-19. The most successful organizations can turn defeat into victory.

To borrow from Talleyrand, there is more need to be afraid of an army of 100 sheep led by a lion than an army of 100 lions led by a sheep.

At some point in their lives, nearly all great organizations and leaders have triumphed over some setback or adversity. They learn from this experience that very often even the greatest enemy can be defeated by a concerted effort and that even if this is not possible, the adverse consequences of defeat can be lessened through exceptional effort.

Much as statues are carved from granite or marble with a mallet and chisel, so great leaders of organizations are often carved by adversity.

Suffering personal hardship puts the problems of the organization into perspective.

An individual who survives a great personal ordeal is less likely to be intimidated by the challenges of leadership as those challenges appear to be no more demanding than what the individual has already faced and overcome.

Adversity teaches us how to solve problems, overcome obstacles and survive hardship and pain. These are lessons we have all learned from the past two years of COVID by going through difficult times.

It is often said people who have survived pain, the deaths of those close to them, suffered through illness or fought their way out of poverty have an inner strength born out of struggle.

It is that inner strength that gives them an advantage in the competition for leading organizations through these difficult times.

A person who has triumphed over a traumatic incident in his or her life develops the confidence that any problem can be defeated, much as that victory sharpens the ability of that person to solve such problems.

Quite often, the most impressive feats of leadership emerge when an organization is confronted by apparently overwhelmingly adverse conditions or in the face of apparent and inevitable defeat.

The heroic leadership of Sir Ernest Shackleton in leading the crew of the exploration ship Endurance back from the brink of disaster is a case in point.

On Dec. 5, 1914, Shackleton and 27 men sailed from South Georgia Islands across the Southern Ocean to the Ross Ice Shelf, with the goal of being the first men to cross the Antarctic Continent.

Forty-five days after departure, the Endurance became trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea.

So began an epic 635-day struggle for survival. When the ship was crushed by ice, Shackleton and his men had no choice but to attempt a return trip in a small craft.

Shackleton’s leadership and the crew’s astonishing bravery, living on ice flows, sailing 800 miles of open ocean in a lifeboat, and crossing previously unexplored mountains and glaciers on foot, brought all 28 men through the ordeal alive.

To do so, it was necessary to drag their boats across treacherous pack ice to reach the open sea and then to cross the stormy oceans between Antarctica and Cape Horn in little more than rowing boats.

As their rations ran out, the men subsisted on a diet of penguin and seal.

Despite unprecedented hardships, Shackleton was able to keep the men focused consistently on the goal of escape, even though the chances of survival must have appeared close to nil.

After crossing the Southern Ocean to Elephant Island, half-way between South America and the Antarctic, a smaller group undertook a further ocean crossing to South Georgia, where it was then necessary to cross a previously unexplored mountain range and glacier. Only then could help be secured. Ultimately, every man was saved.

Shackleton’s vision, actions and philosophy of leadership allowed him to inspire his crew to accomplish what even now seems an impossible feat at the utmost limit of human endurance.

Stephen Bauld is a government procurement expert and can be reached at Some of his columns may contain excerpts from The Municipal Procurement Handbook published by Butterworths.

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