John L. Terry, IIi - The Black Belt Leader
Nature can teach us so many life lessons if we will simply take the time to stop and observe. In ancient times, history tells us that King Solomon would lie in the fields around his palace and observe nature at work. He wrote of the diligence of the ant and his "Book of Wise Sayings" (Proverbs) is full of examples of Solomon's careful observance of God's creation.
When it comes to learning how to overcome adversity, look no further than the cactus. Despite the harshest conditions, the cactus finds a way to keep growing and becoming a better version of itself.
Adversity is part of the human existence. It is something that can be avoided to some extent, but not completely eliminated. Gravity, as an example, pulls at us from the moment we were conceived and exerts pressure on us throughout our lives. To a lesser extent, the atmosphere we breathe and exist therein applies pressure against our bodies and resistance as we traverse throughout our day.
Sickness, injury, disease, and death are also adversarial foes we combat during our lives on this planet as well. No one is immune from the ever-reaching tentacles of adversity, so we either succumb to it, learn to accept it, or find ways to overcome it and become better as a result of going through it.
For a leader, adversity can take various forms. Often it is an individual opponent that challenges your leadership, refuses instruction, attempts to insert his or her own personal agenda, or seeks to undermine your authority. Individual adversity can also come in the form of human error, team members missing deadlines, or when mission-critical team members leave the workplace for personal reasons or advancement.
At other times, it's something outside your control, such as the coronavirus pandemic we are experiencing at this time that thwarts (at least for a season) your plans for growth and expansion. Adversity can happen as a result of a supplier failing to deliver needed goods or parts on time, a regulatory change that negatively impacts your operation, equipment failure, an unforeseen weather event (such as a hurricane, fire or tornado), or civil unrest.
Leaders can learn a lot from the cactus. The cactus provides us with a powerful example of overcoming adversity, learning from it, and using what adversity throws its way to become a better version of itself and thrive. Even in the most difficult of conditions, the cactus finds a way to keep growing and become a better version of itself. The cactus is a plant known as a succulent. They have adapted their structure to both capture and store what is needed (water) so in times of drought, they can be sustained.
From the cactus, we can learn the importance of moderation, patience, and the importance of setting aside critical resources for those times of adversity.
The root system of a cactus is extensive but shallow. The root system remains close to the surface so it can absorb what little water actually falls within the dry climates in which it lives. This enables the cactus to quickly and efficiently absorb the life-sustaining nutrients its needs, both for its immediate needs and its long-term sustainability.
From the cactus, we can learn the importance of being close to the action so we can gather as much intelligence and useable information, allowing the Team to quickly adapt to changing market conditions and see both short-term and long-term success.
The cactus has a ribbed or fluted body that allows it to expand and contract based on weather conditions. In times of water abundance, the cactus actually swells in size so it can store more water so, during times of drought, the cactus simply feeds off of its stored reserves. They also adapt their body shape in response to climate and soil conditions to maximize their opportunity to thrive in often hostile environments.
During photosynthesis, it stores carbon dioxide during the day, releasing it in the evenings to reduce water loss during the transpiration process of photosynthesis. In most plants, up to 99% of water loss it experiences each day takes place during the transpiration process. The cactus has adapted how it exchanges the gases necessary for photosynthesis to take place to minimize the loss of nutrients necessary for its survival.
The cactus has also replaced its leaves with spines. This adaptation was necessary for its survival. In addition to providing protection from predators, the spines serve to reduce airflow near the skin of the cactus, helping to preserve the store of water within. Even though these spines are slender, the limited shade they provide also helps to cool the cactus so its water stores can be preserved.
From the cactus, we can learn the importance of adaptation, especially in times of adversity. Just because everyone else is doing it one way doesn't mean your team can't find a better, more efficient way of accomplishing its task or mission. Adversity can also reveal another business opportunity within your existing business, allowing you to profit even as your primary product or service is not currently in great demand.
Two recent examples of this are when Ford Motor Company shifted production from automobiles to ventilators and Century Martial Arts shifted production from making martial arts uniforms to making masks in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Rather than succumbing to adversity and throwing up their hands in defeat, the leaders of these organizations sought to overcome adversity, learn from it, and become better as a result.
Adversity is a part of life. We will all experience it at various times in our lives. Likely you've just come through a time of adversity, you're in a time of adversity now, or you're about to go into a time of adversity. Life can be hard at times, but it is in those difficult, trying times that our best life lessons are often learned.
It is in times of struggle that we discover the greatness within ourselves, awaiting the opportunity to be cultivated and deployed for a purpose greater than ourselves.
Learn the lesson of the cactus. Outlook determines outcome. The cactus sees adversity as a challenge to overcome, an opportunity to learn from, to adapt to, and find d way to thrive even in the midst of it.
Be a cactus, my friend. Learn to be an overcomer, even in the midst of adversity.