Times are tough, and they’re only getting tougher. As the Center for Creative Leadership says, we live in a VUCA world, surrounded by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. It’s not easy to inspire others when there are so many variables working against us.
Nevertheless, this is what leaders are expected to do. When leaders fail to inspire during times of adversity, followers drift and the strength of unity is lost within an organization. Defeated leaders lose their followers and their backing. Sometimes, they even lose their platform and their voice. No one chooses to put their faith into a leader who is subject to circumstances and unable to find a way through adversity and challenges. We hold leaders to a higher standard.
Norman Cousins, the prolific author who demonstrated that laughter is the best medicine by outliving his illness 26 years longer than doctors anticipated, coined the phrase “Don’t deny the diagnosis, try to defy the verdict.”
In Turning Adversity into Opportunity, James Kouzes and Barry Posner have resurrected this sage advice as one of six strategies that can make a difference for anyone faced with a tough challenge.
To defy the verdict means finding a way to change the expected outcome. It means refusing to believe that a pronouncement made is an absolute inevitability. It means taking control of a situation without giving up.
Leaders must defy the verdict if they are to inspire others. A leader who positions himself or herself as a victim of circumstances is one who abandons hope. This is uninspiring and demotivating to others.
Leaders who do defy the verdict accomplish great things and break new ground. They inspire their followers and become legends who then inspire others through the ages.
Consider these leaders who defied the verdict:
Walt Disney received the verdict that he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas” when he was fired by a newspaper editor. He defied the verdict over and over again as he started numerous businesses that ended in bankruptcy.
Thomas Edison defied the verdict of a teacher who said he was “too stupid to learn anything” and the verdict of his first two bosses who fired him for not being productive enough. As an inventor, he failed over 1,000 times in his attempts to design the light bulb.
Oprah Winfrey, once deemed “unfit for TV,” defied the verdict to become one of the world’s wealthiest and most successful celebrities of all time.
Sidney Poitier defied the verdict, too, when he was told by the casting director at his first audition “Why don’t you stop wasting people’s time and go out and become a dishwasher or something?” Poitier vowed to make it big, won an Oscar and is still considered to be one of the most highly regarded actors in Hollywood history.
These are stories of perseverance. These leaders maintained confidence in their ideas and abilities despite others’ assessments. Given their circumstances and the judgments and perceptions of others, we might expect them to have faded into the background rather than ascending in their fields so magnificently.
There are verdicts we succumb to every day that we may need to defy instead. If you pause and reflect on all the limitations you have accepted as unalterable and absolute, you may realize that it’s a long and burdensome list. To liberate yourself, pick one and work to defy the verdict you previously accepted.
Here’s how to rise above the verdicts you’ve heard and accepted:
- Identify the verdicts. Write them down. Include anything at all that represents an obstacle. Include statements that start with “I am,” “We always,” “We never,” and “We can’t because.”
- Ask "Why" and "Who says?" Some of our verdicts are no longer valid but have become so ingrained in our belief systems that we continue operating on outdated truths. Asking these questions may reveal verdicts that are obsolete.
- Ask "What is the evidence?" Some verdicts are merely opinions and have no factual foundation. Other verdicts are based on incomplete assessments or inconclusive data. No matter how frequently or how adamantly something has been said, it isn’t necessarily true.
- Pick a single verdict to defy. This foregone conclusion that has been your reality is what you will work on proactively resisting.
- Create a plan of defiance. Start by asking “If this were not true, what would I be doing differently?” Give yourself some alternatives so you can attack the verdict from all angles. Enlist others who may already be defying this verdict or would like to do so. Be sure your plan includes elements that put you back in control.
- Ask “What will it take to shift this?” and “How can we break this down into manageable chunks we can change?” as you more fully develop your defiance plan.
- Recognize and celebrate your small wins along the way. Small victories against long-standing verdicts are worthy of celebration and are the inspiring fuel you and others need to continue with your plan of defiance. Chip away at that verdict until it falls.
If you experience skepticism or doubt along the way, remember this. Looking back throughout your life, you have already defied a verdict. We all have. You exceeded someone else’s expectations, proved someone wrong about you, overcame your own fears or broke new ground at some point in your life. See, that’s the startling truth about defying the verdict — it’s doable, we’ve done it, and it’s not at all uncommon. That’s precisely why we should never accept the verdicts that would hold us back.