Surviving leadership's toughest tests

"What doesn't kill you will make you stronger" is a common but trite sentiment, usually doled out in an attempt to help others make the best of gross misfortune.

by Harvard Business Review
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Unfortunately for those who suffer such adversity, the phrase is much easier uttered than heeded to. An abrupt decline in circumstances can poleaxe even the most resolute leaders, and history is littered with those who were at the height of their powers one moment only to find themselves on the scrapheap the next. They don't always make it back.

But US-based management consultant Glenn E. Mangurian is one individual that did make it back - and in impressive fashion. In 2001 Mangurian suffered an unprovoked disc rupture that pressed against his spinal cord, leaving the lower half of his body permanently paralyzed. He spent two months in a Boston hospital followed by four years of physical therapy. His life was transformed utterly by the experience, yet he insists that his life is as good as it was before.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Mangurian observes that life-changing experiences are not something you can plan for - a reality which is very hard to swallow for executives used to anticipating every possible scenario and preparing accordingly. However, he says, it is possible to operate in a way that allows you to accept setbacks as they occur, move on and create new possibilities.

For Mangurian, the defining moment came a few weeks after his injury occurred. Lying in his hospital bed and looking out of the window, Mangurian told himself that despite his physical limitations, his brain still worked perfectly and he still had a lot to offer.

From that point onwards he focused his attention on getting better and restarting his career. His experience of guiding executives through dramatic organisational changes was very helpful in this regard, he says. "At times I saw experienced, capable people lose their jobs in the process," he writes. "I saw what they went through, and I saw them rebound."

But despite his strong sense of optimism, Mangurian was still at times besieged by negative thoughts and emotions. At one point, he imagines himself becoming homeless, forced to sell pencils from a tin cup on the corner. At another he is overcome by the degrading image of his wheelchair-bound self as the new family pet ("Who's going to walk the dog?" "I did it last night; it's your turn"). Such feelings are probably unavoidable for anybody whose luck has taken such a sharp turn for the worse. The key to overcoming them, Mangurian suggests, is to recognise that they are absurd and not an accurate reflection of reality.

As soon as Mangurian was out of hospital, he set about re-establishing himself as a professional. Nine months after the injury, he held two brainstorming sessions, each including eight or nine people he trusted, aimed at helping to shape his thoughts about what he could achieve professionally. About six months after that he joined a consulting project, helping a group of executives launch a firm aimed at baby boomers.

He has since worked on a few projects for the Christopher Reeve Foundation and testified on behalf of stem cell research at a legislative hearing. Shortly before his injury, Mangurian had set up an executive breakfast programme at the University of Massachusetts, a forum for interviewing accomplished alumni. Since his injury the group has swollen from 250 members to 1,800. He continues to develop his management consultant practice, where he draws on his personal experience to advise executives facing adversity in their personal lives or at their organisations.

Mangurian admits he continues to struggle "every day" with the limitations and challenges paralysis has imposed on him. However, by drawing on the achievements of his life before his injury, he says has been able to create a new life "full of purpose and possibilities", some of which only became apparent because of something that at first seemed disastrous.

Harvard Business Review
Glenn E. Mangurian

Review by: Nick Loney



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