Adversity Sharpens the Edge

Written by Mark Breslin

At the time of this writing, our world and industry are confronting major adversity.  The phrase “uncharted territory” has been overused but still convey the uncertainty of profound change and challenge.   But adversity always has a purpose – and I am sure you can see this even in your personal lives as well.  On the back end of any major problem, issue, setback, or challenge – upon thoughtful or strategic reflection – we can see how it becomes a platform for perspective and progress.

Starting when I was a kid, I have been witness to a lot of turmoil in this industry.  My Union Carpenter turned contractor Dad had 150 guys in the field, an El Camino, and a summer house in Twain Harte; and my sisters and I lacked for nothing.  Then came the 1975-76 economic crisis, when interest rates went up to 16 per cent.  No one paid and lines of credit were non-existent.  And, very quickly, our family’s economic world came crashing down, taking with it my Dad’s company.  Our family may have endured some hard times, but we all came back stronger, wiser, and more successful than ever.

In the eighties I was looking for a job in a recession.  None of my friends could find one.  The promise of college equalling opportunity seemed like BS.  Then I got a job interview at United Contractors.  They received 110 resumes and had seven finalists.  Hunger breeds desire.  And they saw that edge and hired me.  I guess now as CEO, it kind of all worked out.

Then, in several more down cycles, I saw the industry struggle.  But the edge created by adversity really showed in the 2008 financial crisis.  Remarkably few contractors I knew went under compared to what I had seen in other less brutal circumstances.  Why?  Because the adversity lessons that they had in hand had helped them to see what needed to be done.   And wiser, shrewder, and more pro-active, they once again thrived.

Now again we will face adversity and uncertainty.  The key for effective leaders is not to be reactive and instead to stop and remember that this is a moment to bring empathy, understanding, and wisdom to our leadership.  The business world is built on the care of the people within it.  And for them to withstand adversity, they have to see and feel that you really care.  Those that make this their priority will not only sharpen their edge, but obtain a competitive one in the aftermath of these challenges.

They say the Chinese symbol for chaos and opportunity are the same.  I’ll have to take their word for it but there is some irony in that and practical application for us.  Perhaps the issue at hand will resolve sooner than later – but the inevitability of a recession seems apparent.  Perhaps there will be a significant industry contraction – or conversely the next step to recovery may be massive infusions into infrastructure.  What I do know is this; No one would be in our business if they were not equipped to deal with adversity.  No one who accepts the level of risk that our business has lacks the ability to strategically address profound change.

As leaders at the center of the storm, counted upon for navigation by those that depend upon us, we have the greatest opportunity to sharpen our edge.  I tell my staff that how we respond at this moment is our legacy opportunity.  Watching my Dad sell that El Camino gave me a sobering look at the limits of our control in this life.  But what we all have within our grasp is how we respond to it.  And I encourage us all to embrace adversity as a whetstone to our edge and our capabilities; not only for ourselves, but for everyone we lead and care about.

Adversity Sharpens the Edge

About the Author

Mark Breslin is an author, speaker, CEO, and influencer inspiring change for workplace success across all levels of business.  Mark has improved leadership, accountability, innovation, and engagement for organizations and individuals. He has spoken to more than 400,000 people and published hundreds of thousands of books on leadership and workplace culture.  See his work at

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