You can learn a great deal about leaders when you see how they react to challenges they did not choose – the challenge chooses them.

A few weeks ago, I attended a large, five district Rotary Club conference at the Mt. Washington Resort in Bretton Woods, NH. While there were several good programs, I was especially moved by a keynote speaker, Travis Roy, who I’m proud to say our Portsmouth Club sponsored. Roy was a very talented, highly recruited hockey player from Maine, who, just 11 seconds into his first game at Boston University, broke his neck after a clean hit thrust him into the boards. That accident in 1995 paralyzed Roy.

Among Roy’s motivating talking points was this gem – “most of the time we get to choose our challenges, but a true test of one’s character is how we react to challenges we do not choose.”

He told us the story of his life and how he chose hockey to be his challenge. But then the accident happened and a completely different, unexpected challenge chose him. Roy went through a long and painful partial recovery, finished college, and started the Travis Roy Foundation. This foundation “is dedicated to enhancing the life of individuals with spinal cord injuries and their families by providing adaptive equipment and to finding a cure through increased funding of research, resulting in self-reliance and the ability to be as independent as possible.”

Roy’s behavior is a great example of what an effective leader can do when a challenge chooses you. Would you be able to do what Travis Roy did?

Joe Biden and his Son Beau. Patti, my wife, recently gave me Joe Biden’s book Promise Me, Dad, which I read this weekend. I know there are some conservatives out there who shutter when I say “Joe Biden” (I think I can see them twitching right now.) Personally, I’ve always liked him and this book only deepened my appreciation of Joe Biden, the man.

In this book Biden thoughtfully and respectfully takes us through the most challenging year any parent would have to endure – coping with the long illness and death of a child while executing his responsibilities as Vice President of the United States. Obviously, Biden chose the challenge of being Vice President, but he didn’t choose the other challenge.

Throughout the book Joe Biden gave examples of the courage Beau showed while enduring new and unproven treatments. Beau’s constant re-assurance to his doctors using the phrase, “Okay Doc, let’s do it,” showed Beau’s courage in the face of the challenges that chose him. In case you didn’t know, Beau Biden was a well-decorated military veteran and very popular Attorney General of Delaware before his illness.

If you are curious about the title of the book, it references how Beau himself inspired his Dad to not let Beau’s pending death sidetrack Biden from making the world a better place. You see, Beau knew his Dad loved him very much and was worried that his death would discourage the older Biden. How both Beau and Joe Biden handled the challenges that chose them is inspiring.

Staying Calm in the Face of Challenge. This week I read an article by Melanie Curtin in Inc. Magazine that described a calming technique developed by Navy Seal Mark Divine that he calls Box Breathing. Divine, the creator of Sealfit and Unbeatable Mind, described how while in the Navy Seals he learned several martial arts techniques that help during combat missions. Divine says, “Box breathing has a neutral energetic effect: It’s not going to charge you up or put you into a sleepy relaxed state. But it will make you very alert and grounded, ready for action.”  It is a five (5) minute exercise that has these five steps:

  1. Expel all the air from your chest, and keep your lungs empty for four long counts.
  2. Inhale through your nose for four long counts.
  3. Hold the air in your lungs for four long counts. (Divine adds: “When you hold your breath, do not clamp down and create back pressure. Rather, maintain an expansive, open feeling even though you are not inhaling.”)
  4. Exhale smoothly through your nose for four counts.
  5. That’s one “rep.” Divine recommends doing the practice for five minutes minimum to experience the benefits.

I have tried this technique twice and Divine is right – a level of alertness and awareness seems to kick in. Perhaps this will help you lead better if or when a challenge chooses you.