Leadership Development

Leading in the Face of Unexpected Adversity

How do you handle adversity?

How do you handle unexpected adversity? I mean the kind of adversity that totally knocks you upside the head — because you just never saw it coming?

In the face of that kind of adversity — how do you lead?

These are a few of the questions I’m asking myself as I watch the quarterback situation unfolding in San Francisco.

In my post yesterday I wrote about the rise of Colin Kaepernick — the new starting quarterback of the 49ers — who seems to be the new leader of a true Super Bowl contender.

I suggested that there were five lessons that young leaders could learn from Kaepernick — especially if they feel like they’re playing “second chair” or “second fiddle” to the primary leader of their team.

Today I’m turning my focus to Alex Smith — the guy Kaepernick replaced.

As I mentioned yesterday, Smith was the #1 overall draft pick back in 2005, and has helped to lead the Niners to be one of the best teams in the NFL over the past couple of years.

But when he got hurt a few weeks back, the door was opened for Kaepernick to get a shot at leading the team — and he’s done very well.

In fact, he’s done so well that regardless of the fact that Smith is now healthy, it looks like Kaepernick will continue to start at the QB position.

And this leaves Smith — the long time starter for the 49ers — sidelined.

It’s hard to imagine what all he’s feeling…

But it’s probably not too hard to imagine ourselves in a similar type of scenario — which should cause us to ask the question:

How would we respond if we were in his shoes?

I’d like to offer five qualities of great leadership that I hope I would embody if I were facing the unexpected adversity that Smith now finds himself in.

1. Don’t make it personal, remain professional

I’m sure when Smith got injured he never imagined that his job wouldn’t be waiting for him once he returned to good health.

I don’t know that most of us would blame him for feeling slighted or miffed about this surprising turn of events. Nor would we be surprised by some discord within the locker room or sidelines.

But I hope that we might see (and be — in our own scenarios) gracious in these kinds of circumstances. Most decisions like this can feel very personal — and some are — but many aren’t.

We need to believe that it’s not the end of the world — no matter the scenario — and if we are able to remain open and positive (to people and situations) we just never know how God might choose to work.

2. Focus on team over self

Likewise, if we can keep a team-oriented perspective — and not just obsess about our own situation — we’ll ultimately make things better for everyone in the end.

Ministry, much like football, is a team effort. It’s not about achieving for one’s self — but achieving the goals of the team (or the people we’re serving).

Pride, fame, and power are the things that lure us into thinking it is about us.

Our ability to fight this allure — and focus on team goals — will be what shapes our future leadership (regardless of where it is).

There’s no telling how this situation with the Niners (or any situation we might someday find ourselves in) is going to play out. Kaepernick could tank the next couple of games and Smith could find himself back in the starting position — if he doesn’t make some of the emotional mistakes that many leaders do when they feel they have been slighted or under-appreciated.

And even if Smith never starts another game for the Niners, can he be about finding ways for them to achieve their ultimate goal?

3. Use your leadership collateral for good — not ill

Smith has an important decision to make right now. He’s got a lot of leadership clout with the team he has led for the past several years. It would be easy for him to use that clout to create division within the team.

But Smith could also use his platform to get behind the new young quarterback, and thereby let the rest of his teammates know that it’s OK for them to get on board with the new guy as well. This act will communicate to Smith’s teammates and friends that it’s not about choosing sides or playing allegiances — but about accomplishing the mission of the team.

When placed in similar situations, we have similar opportunities.

Our years of leadership and service are things that we have the potential to leverage — for good or for ill.

4. Get on board — or risk getting left behind

Just because Smith is not currently the starting QB for his team, doesn’t mean that he no longer has an important role to play within the organization.

Again, there’s no telling what the future holds. He could find himself back in his former role this coming Sunday — or possibly never.

There are some things in this scenario that Smith can control — and some that he cannot.

He can’t control whether or not he will get to start for his team again.

He can control his attitude about everything that’s taking place, his work ethic, his leadership off the field, etc.

He can either put himself in position to step into the leading role when the opportunity presents itself (much like Kaepernick did — with his attitude, work ethic, and ability) — or not.

If he allows himself to sulk, and become a problem within the team, then he runs the risk of being left behind (and furthermore, undesirable to other teams).

5. Remember, nothing is permanent

Although it’s been woven throughout the course of this post, it’s worth stating forthright — nothing is ever permanent.

Or maybe I should say few things are permanent.

We can do our best with the things that are within our power to control, and recognize those things that are not for what they are, and then trust that God is ultimately in control of it all. That He’s for us and not against us. And that we shouldn’t obsess about the future — because today’s got enough for us to deal with.


I know it’s easy for me to offer up these thoughts as someone whose not currently in the midst of the storm.

But it’s my hope that when I am (again), I will better be able to embody these thoughts and attitudes.

QUESTION: How do you lead in the midst of unexpected adversity? How do you manage the perceived threat of someone else’s leadership?