Staying Curious and Leading Through Adversity

Although this current crisis is unique, over the last 20 years in leadership coaching and development, I have seen how at some stage in our careers, most of us face a period of adversity. It can come in many shapes and sizes – from the personal tragedies that can strike us all to a range of challenges at work; a change project going terribly off the rails, material corporate wrongdoing, or an industry collapse. Perhaps for the first time, COVID-19 may mean that we will be leading through challenging times, both personally and professionally.

Staying curious and leading through adversity

Of course, many of the accomplished leaders I speak to will acknowledge that their most significant learnings have come from their painful leadership experiences. However, it can be challenging to see the opportunity when we are in the trenches. I have seen many strategies and tactics employed, and I have found that leaders who ask themselves the following three questions have perhaps dealt with those demanding situations the best.

Ask yourself and your team what can be learned?

We know from years of research that those leaders with what is known as a ‘growth mindset’ are better equipped for; tackling challenges, responding productively to feedback, using the most successful problem-solving strategies and consistently seeking to reach goals¹. In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dr Carol Dwerk identified two distinct mindsets, ‘growth’ and ‘fixed’. She explains ²;


When we have a fixed mindset, adversity can be particularly tricky. We can easily fall into the trap of putting our defenses up, and when we do this, it inhibits growth. We can focus too much on proving ourselves, striving never to fail, and taking every set back personally. What is different about leaders with a growth mindset? Well, it is probably best understood in terms of how they face challenges and how they think about failure, including how they bounce back. People who maintain a growth mindset share the following characteristics³ 4. They,

  • Embrace challenges
  • Persist in the face of setbacks
  • See effort as the path to mastery
  • Learn from criticism
  • Find lessons and inspiration in the success of others


So, how do we adopt a growth mindset?  Well, Carol herself, in a 2016 article, is keen to stress that we all have a combination of both mindsets about different things. I might have a fixed mindset when it comes to my abilities to learn a new language but a growth mindset about using technology. While a growth mindset can be challenging to cultivate, especially in environments that are focused on what is best described as a talent race 5, you can start with these three strategies 6:

  1.  For yourself and others, rather than focusing on results, focus on effort, strategy, and progress. Double down on the processes that should lead to the best outcomes, even though sometimes they won’t.
  2.  Push out of your comfort zone; this will form new skills and expand your neural pathways. Encourage this with your team. Crucially, this must be coupled with an approach to failure that defines it as merely a stage in a process to success. You haven’t failed instead, ‘you just haven’t got there yet.’ Replace ‘failure’ with ‘learning’.
  3. Be curious and seek the views of others. Seeking out the perspectives of others, adopting an approach of continuous learning, and crucially listening to others, especially in your team, can be some of the most empowering behaviors you can choose under challenging times.

Do I want to be a Commander or a Coach instead?

It can be tempting in a high-pressure environment to fall back to leadership behaviors that may mobilise resources in the short-term, but that are unlikely to be productive over the medium to long term. Command and control leadership styles can stifle collaboration, innovation, problem-solving, and motivation.

Adopting a leadership coaching style can take practice, but it can be learned. Even amid a fast-moving environment where critical decisions are required, you can start by trying these five tactics with your team members and colleagues. You may be surprised by the resources, innovation, and engagement that will follow.

  1. Context ­­­­- In any exchange or discussion, take time to understand and reflect on the context. This step is perhaps most critical in a crisis. Establish the situation and how the individual or team sits in that context, and within the organisation. Take stock of the current skills, capabilities, resources, and knowledge. Listen without agenda, be curious, and try to understand the issue from several perspectives.
  2. Objectives – What does the individual or team want from this discussion or situation? What are their objectives? Be careful to establish theirs rather than insert your own. These objectives may relate to an immediate or longer-term situation. Once the objectives are clarified, also help identify where the strengths and weaknesses or obstacles and resources are, in meeting these objectives.
  3. Alternatives – Exploring these can be one of the most effective anecdotes to the feelings of stress that can come from being overwhelmed and that are associated with high-pressure situations. Explore the possible courses of action and steps to get there. Take time to help individuals weigh up the options and build a plan of action. Many times, when I have worked with leaders, they have told me they simply have “no other options”. It can be tempting here to rush on and build a one-dimensional plan of action or step in yourself and suggest what you would do. Instead, be patient, encourage and challenge the individual or team to keep exploring the possibilities. Often, more alternatives will emerge, and this is essential for helping them to build their skill and confidence in being resourceful – a critical behavior for changing times.
  4. Change – Ask the questions: What to do differently? By when? What are the first steps? Who might be impacted? What other considerations are there? Empower your teams to problem-solve and create solutions. Many leaders will ask and answer these questions of themselves – instead, ask others and listen to the answers.
  5. Help – Draw out what support may be needed to help the individual or team and to keep momentum and embed the change. Identify how best to harness this help and foster support.

Your role through this process is to listen, reflect, challenge, support, and encourage. Through this approach, you will promote learning and growth, build resilience, and support sustained change.

What about after this crisis?

I recently saw an interesting comment on the COVID-19 situation by Eliot Hoff, Head of APCO’s Worldwide Global Crisis Practice; he explains that it is critical to start ‘strategising immediately for once the crisis subsides’ 8. This thinking is essential in my view for three reasons:

  • Firstly, for emotional intelligence, it’s important to acknowledge that the hardships now are in service of gains later and to understand that this crisis will eventually end.
  • Secondly, the transformation in the crisis will most likely be significant—for example, changes to remote working or new ways of production or communication. Failing to understand and strategise for the transition post-crisis could bring new risks for the organisation and equally mean it misses out on opportunities.
  • Thirdly, it promotes balanced and long-term thinking rather than the unproductive decision-making biases of narrow and short-term thinking that can dominate in times of adversity.


I think now is the time for leaders to step up, to ask what we can learn, day by day, and week by week while we are ‘in’ the change – reflecting afterward is not soon enough. We need to resist the temptation to ‘take over’. Communication and clarity are essential for leaders in times of change. Still, we need to be the facilitators of these behaviours, not the owners, and we can do this by adopting a coaching style and helping our teams and colleagues to engage, innovate and be resourceful.

Finally, we need to be curious, not scared of the future, a future that will be different and that we need to be prepared for, but one that will inevitably bring new challenges and opportunities.


Debbie Moore- Director at the Executive Coaching Consultancy

Debbie Moore is a Director of the Executive Coaching Consultancy and can be reached at

Inclusivity, Dealing in Uncertainty, Staying Connected: Coaching Comment March 2020 


  3.  (Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (2016) – Carol Dweck, Ph.Dp. 245)


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