Dealing With Adversity: Those Who Stay Will Be Champions

Picture for a moment this scenario playing out in your organization:

The board of directors just decided to eliminate your department and its $800,000 annual drain on the company’s already struggling operating budget. You are now faced with having to tell your employees that you all will be out of a job at the end of the quarter and not reassigned within the company.

After being on life support for four sub-par years, your department was now declared officially dead.

How success can come from dire circumstances

Now fast forward one month from that fateful day. Thanks to the herculean efforts of the department manager (which may be you) who enlisted the support of former colleagues, customers, community members, managers at competing companies and other industry peers your department has been moved from the morgue back to the critical care unit, so to speak.

By 5-4 vote of the board, the decision was reversed and your department reinstated, but there’s a catch. Your management team has been cut in half, your payroll for the remaining staff has been cut by 21 percent, and your operating budget was also halved.

What would you do? Could you stop the exodus of remaining employees and clients who deem it a sinking ship they don’t want to go down with? Could you lead this group to become the most outstanding department of its kind in the entire country under these dark and dire circumstances?

I share this with you because it is the story of Coach Jack Harbaugh and his Western Kentucky University football team.

Harbaugh’s two sons Jim (San Francisco 49ers coach) and his older brother John (Baltimore Ravens coach) have been thrust in the national spotlight this week as their teams will be competing in the Super Bowl on Sunday Feb. 3 in New Orleans. But my favorite Harbaugh has always been their father Jack, who toiled away in relative obscurity on a 43-year college coaching career.

Jim Harbaugh (San Francisco 49ers coach) and John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens coach)
Jim Harbaugh (San Francisco 49ers coach) and John Harbaugh (Baltimore Ravens coach)

The scenario outlined above happened to Jack Harbaugh in 1992, and in 2002, his team won the school’s first ever National Championship. It is a story about not letting what you don’t have interfere with what you do have. It’s also a story about the power of relationships.

Not just about football, but about life

You may view this as a far-fetched parallel but make no mistake about — it’s not!

This isn’t just about football it’s also a story playing out inside the walls of many organizations across America in just about every industry. Budget cuts, downsizing, salary freezes, outright elimination of some departments. You could be next and the only question is what you do: flee, freeze, or fight.

Most might choose to flee but you’d actually have to have other employment options and in this economy there aren’t a lot of jobs to be had. When this happens, many others feel forced to freeze, feeling shocked by the gravity of it all they opt to do nothing. After all, they feel powerless and trapped by circumstances.

There are a select few leaders who do like Coach Jack Harbaugh did, choose to fight back and not simply be a witness and casualty to circumstance. They hold themselves 100 percent responsible for their success or failure, and as a result, create their own circumstances.

This is all well and good in theory, but you’re probably thinking, “how can you put it into practice?”  Here are some steps based on what Coach Harbaugh did.

Create a rally cry

Coach Harbaugh posted a sign in the locker room which read “Those Who Stay Will Be Champions.” The sign remains there as a reminder to all about the power and value of resilience. What is your rally cry and how does it speak to the mission or task at hand?

Harbaugh’s clearly addressed the question his players and personnel were wondering about. This is the same eternal question every employee is always asking — WIIFM, or What’s In It For Me? Choose your rallying cry or slogan carefully because it will be remembered and will be part of your legacy as a leader.

Not convinced yet? Harbaugh’s rallying cry and his results on the field were so fondly remembered that in 1998, before they even won their National Championship, an anonymous donor gave $3 million dollars to create an endowment for the program.

Take inventory of your most important resource

Remember that your most valuable resources are your human resources. Look at virtually every great success story and behind it you will see that intellectual capital trumped financial capital. Enlist the support of family, relatives and community members.

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Are there volunteers or relatives in the community you could have assist your efforts? Coach Harbaugh’s son Jim, then an NFL quarterback, volunteered to serve as an unpaid assistant coach at WKU during the NFL off-season. His off-season home was in Orlando, Florida, which is one of the nation’s most fertile recruiting grounds for high school football prospects in the U.S.

Do you have industry peers you don’t compete with?

Coach Harbaugh’s other son John was a recruiter at the University of Cincinnati, and his father asked him to share the names of prospects that weren’t a fit at Cincinnati but might be at WKU. The list then made its way into the hands of brother Jim Harbaugh, who used his name recognition as an NFL star as a foot in the door to spark prospects interest in WKU and who otherwise might not have given the University a second look.

Reverse mentoring

Find a young up-and-comer or rising star in your industry you can reach out to for new ideas and a fresh perspective. Check out the Top 30 under 30 or Top 40 under 40 listings in your market as a good recruiting list, so to speak. These people will be a great resource because they haven’t been around long enough yet to have their spirits dampened by downturns in the industry.

Coach Harbaugh had a young up and coming college basketball coach in Tom Crean whom he relied on for emotional support. Crean was his son in-law, and, the head basketball coach at Marquette University (he’s now the coach at Indiana University).

Leverage your contacts

Harbaugh’s college team didn’t have money in the budget for uniforms so they enlisted the help of Fila Sportswear Inc. through a contact one of his assistants had at the company back in 1994 to help outfit his team.

Enlist the help of corporate partners and donors

Western Kentucky University received some donated football cleats from Nike, and Jim Harbaugh asked his Indianapolis Colts teammates to donate their extra cleats, which he boxed up and brought to WKU.

Get a touch of grey

Yes, a touch of grey — grey hair that is. Identify and seek out a retired executive to serve as a sounding board and emotional support. Look for someone who is either further along on it or has already made the professional journey you are on. They will be able to share with you the strategies that helped them not just survive but thrive amidst the chaos during their time in the industry.

Like recruiting athletes, often the hardest thing to measure with employees is heart. Jack Harbaugh has an expression that his sons both use with their teams, and it has become their motto. “Attack today with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind”

This was the statement he made to both his kids when he dropped them off at elementary school each day when they were growing up. It is a mantra that the Harbaughs have lived, played, worked, and coached by.

Attitude is a decision you make

You can do the same. It is advice we can all benefit from. After all, the attitude you take is a decision you make. And each day you can choose to be positive or choose to be negative. You can see things through a set of eyes that sees the good or a set that sees the bad.

The choice is yours and enthusiasm is a force multiplier in any endeavor. How are you reminding yourself and your people to look at the day and whatever adversity it may bring with a positive set of eyes?

The bottom line is that if it were easy, everyone would be doing it and everyone would be successful but it’s not easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. Remind yourself and your people of this fact and that those who stay with you will be champions.

John Brubaker is a nationally renowned performance consultant, speaker and author. Using a multidisciplinary approach, he helps organizations and individuals develop their competitive edge. Brubaker is the author of The Coach Approach: Success Strategies Out Of The Locker Room Into The Board Room, and co-author of the book Leadership: Helping Others To Succeed. He's also the host of Maximum Success: The Coach Bru Show on WWZN AM 1510 in Boston. Contact him at


1 Comment on “Dealing With Adversity: Those Who Stay Will Be Champions

  1. Thanks for the fantastic article. Besides the inspiring story used as the foundation and the practical advice, it’s also a great example for leaders to model on how to use stories of overcoming adversity to inspire their people and shift them from an “We can’t…it’s hopeless” state of mind to a “Bring it on!” attitude.

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