One of the biggest tests of leadership is how you act in times of setbacks and adversity. Some of us beam, some buckle (but hold), others break. What makes tough times even tougher is that there's often an element of unfairness to it. Maybe somebody has wronged you, a circumstance has occurred over which you have no control, the system is inherently biased against you, or others are getting preferential treatment.

Thriving in adversity is also difficult because your energy, resources, and support might be depleted by the mere fact that that's what adversity does. Maybe fighting through setbacks tests you and your will, taunts you, tortures you until you want to call it quits.

The point is there are a variety of reasons it's called adversity, and a variety of outcomes based on how you choose to handle it. Running through it all is one common thread, a brutal truth that you must eventually embrace if you want to plow through setbacks and succeed.

No one cares. Work harder.

After this past weekend's Baltimore Ravens game, the emerging favorite to win the league MVP, quarterback Lamar Jackson, attended the post-game press conference with a t-shirt on that boldly pronounced this painful truth: No one cares. Work harder.

It's not the first time I've encountered this sentiment. In my book Make It Matter, I shared the story of Mark Shapiro, who was then president of Major League Baseball's Cleveland Indians organization. In an interview, Shapiro told me that once he was attending a friend's wedding; his friend happened to be marrying the daughter of NFL coaching legend Bill Parcells.

Shapiro was talking to the coach and lamenting about how his Indians team was devastated by injuries and an aging player roster. Parcells interrupted Shapiro with an abrupt piece of advice: "Mark, nobody gives a s---!" He repeated his advice again to Shapiro at the wedding reception and a third time in the restroom. Shapiro said he never forget the lesson as he took it: "leaders must lead, there must be unswerving accountability, and there are no excuses."

I've personally learned this lesson, too. Many times. I've had moments on more than one occasion throughout my career where I forgot this lesson, where I played the victim, where I became overly focused on what was happening to me, where I spent too much energy on offering excuses and explanations and fighting to right the wrongs being done to me. I was lamenting, not leading.

Here's why this is very powerful advice, even if it's harsh.

First the hard part of the advice-- it implies no one cares. Which is 100 percent true. But not because we're all evil. Think about it for a moment, in times of adversity and setbacks, odds are that everyone around you is going through some things, too. It's not personal, it's not that no one cares about you as a person. They just don't care about your circumstances because they have their own to worry about.

You don't have to like it, but you do have to live with it. And it's true for everybody in every situation. Well, with one exception: if you're a workaholic whose family is begging you to be more present for them, then "No one cares. Work harder" is misguided, terrible advice. But for just about every other situation, it's a universally applicable sentiment. So take strength in numbers.

Now the second part of the advice-- work harder. That's the more helpful bit. Underlying this is likely another layer of truth. Think back to the last time you were in a circumstance where you found yourself lashing out at others, making excuses, or playing the frustrated victim. If you're honest with yourself, isn't it true that if you spent less time complaining and bemoaning and more time getting down to business and rolling up your sleeves to work harder, smarter, or just plain differently, it would have helped? I'm betting, yes. As hard as that might be to admit.

So while being admonished to work harder might feel harsh, it gets you back to solution mode, to something you can control (your effort level) instead of focusing on what you can't. You thus instantly take back at least some level of personal power, which is far better than feeling powerless.

So prescribe a little tough love to yourself or someone else who needs to hear it the next time you face a tough situation. Instead of seething in the face of setbacks, there'll be success.

Published on: Nov 24, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.