Dr. Chuck Stoner is a 22-year professor at Bradley University. He completed his master’s degree and doctoral work at Florida State University, majoring in business management and minoring in social psychology. He has authored or co-authored four textbooks and more than 50 refereed articles and papers.

Stoner teaches leadership and interpersonal dynamics and organization behavior at Bradley, and has worked with the Leadership Development Center since its inception in 1985.

Dr. Jack Gilligan is president and CEO of Fayette Companies and its subsidiaries: Human Service Center, White Oaks Companies of Illinois, Behavioral Health Advantages, Inc., BHA Poland Sp.z o.o., Human Service Center Foundation, Perry & Monroe Investment Co., and Advantage Enterprises, Inc.

Gilligan, a licensed clinical psychologist, is a founding member of the Leadership Development Center. He earned degrees both in the United States and Europe. Gilligan received his Ph.D. from the University of Idaho and completed a post-doctoral fellowship in clinical psychology through the Illinois State Psychiatric Institute. He taught in the School of Business Administration at Bradley University and is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

Stoner and Gilligan recently published a book, The Adversity Challenge, which provides insight into how successful business leaders bounce back from difficult circumstances.

Tell about your backgrounds. Current positions, previous positions.

Jack: I have served as president and CEO of Fayette Companies since 1979. And like most business leaders I learned most about management and leadership by doing. I came into the position with a background in clinical psychology specializing in suicide and depression, along with a background in organizational development. Since management is all about people, especially people in organizational settings, I had some preparation, but nothing like what only experience and reflection on that experience can teach.

Chuck: I did my doctoral work at Florida State University, majoring in management and minoring in social psychology. My interests, research, writing, and consulting have focused on behavioral issues in the workplace. I’ve been at Bradley University since 1980. I was fortunate, as a young professor in the early 1980s, to have an opportunity to get involved with the Leadership Development Center (LDC) as it was being formed. Roger Kelley, LDC’s founder and guiding guru, asked me to work with him as he unveiled his unique training and development model. With Roger’s guidance and mentoring, I had the chance to work with leaders from an array of businesses and organizations. Frankly, Roger took some risks in allowing a guy as young as I was to work with our business elite. I found the interactions to be challenging and exciting. My interest in working with organizations to enhance leadership, improve relationships, and encourage strong behavioral cultures grew from my work with Roger and LDC.

What brought you together to author this book?

Jack: Chuck and I met in 1982 when we were assisting Roger Kelly in developing the Leadership Development Center (LDC). We worked closely in designing some of its programs and served as course instructors for more than a decade. That experience brought us into contact with upper level management professionals from across the United States and a number of foreign countries. The participants in these LDC programs easily represented more than 200 of the Fortune 500 businesses and industries. Needless to say, we learned a lot from the participants, maybe more than what we actually taught them.

However, the most rewarding experience we had and the source of the idea for this book came from a five-year program we did with presidents of local corporations from tri-county communities. A friendship, mutual trust, support and candidness about personal and professional struggles emerged during our sessions together. We were privileged to share in the journey of executives as they addressed the ups and downs of their businesses and personal lives. And it would be less than gracious, if not dishonest, if we failed to publicly acknowledge how much they also helped us in our own professional and personal lives.

It became evident the wisdom, insight, and experience of these participants could be of great benefit to anyone in management. It would make a great book, we thought. Yet we knew we should also include executives outside this group. And so we did. But the fact is we talked about writing this book for several years before doing anything about it.

Chuck: Certainly, as Jack noted, our experiences with Roger Kelly and the Leadership Development Center were pivotal. As we worked together to design executive workshops, I was struck by the thoughtful and creative approaches Jack proposed for addressing weighty business and leadership issues. His style was dynamic and stimulating, and he prompted me to think more broadly and expansively.

We talked about writing this book for about four years before we really got serious about the project. Our problem, as is often the case, was we had so many things we wanted to do. It was hard to zero-in on a theme or approach that could be executed in a reasonable period of time. We had great fun brainstorming though.

What was the original idea for this book? How did you select those individuals you interviewed?

Jack: We wanted to write something that would be helpful for those in management based on the experience of successful business managers and leaders. And we wanted to get at it from the inside out, so to speak. In other words, we wanted to explore the thinking, feeling, and behavior of managers with many years of experience to see what we might learn that was not already published.

To do this, no typical survey would suffice. To get honest disclosures and not the platitudes any of us could recite to an interviewer required more than a casual level of trust between us and those who participated in this study. Consequently, we chose those who not only had a history of demonstrated business success but with whom we established, over the course of years, a level of trust—and who would respond honestly to probing questions that could be embarrassing.

Chuck: The idea of interviewing business leaders and carving insights from their commentaries is certainly not novel. There are some very good books that use this approach. Our hook is the level of depth and the open and candid interactions we had with our participants. As Jack said, we knew these people. We worked with them. I believe they trusted us to use their ideas to help others while adamantly assuring their anonymity. We were very careful on this account. The book uses the participants’ own words and stories. However, if we had any concern those stories would allow a reader to identify the participant, we went to the source. We showed them the passage and got their clearance. If they were not comfortable, we simply did not use it. That was our promise and our commitment to those who helped us.

The other unique thing about this project was the topic—adversity. While the adversity theme has been studied, researched and probed, our approach looked at the “how” and the “what.” How do leaders bounce back? What do they feel when adversity strikes? What do they experience? How do they respond? What works and what does not work quite so well? Because of the personal nature of the interviews, we were able to uncover a process that should be helpful to a number of people.

Did the focus change as you began your research? Was the outcome what you expected?

Jack: We spent a lot of noon-times together, Chuck with his salad and me with my soup—cheap lunches, just discussing how we really wanted to do this. Chuck had written a number of textbooks, and since I have a basic animus toward textbooks, we decided on a trade book. You know, the kind of book you pick up in the typical bookstore business section.

Anyway, we wanted to have a book that was easy to read but with solid material and, above all, helpful to an active manager. Something a business traveler taking a flight from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco could complete during their round-trip flight. Let me say here for the record we made no distinction between a manager and a leader as far as the book goes. Our assumption is in the typical business of today, good managers must also be effective leaders. The talent-based economy of today can’t afford anything less.

But we still needed to get our focus. So based on our experience with the president’s group I previously mentioned, adversity seemed to be a common denominator. This led to our belief effective leadership is always forged in the cauldron of adversity. And this became the theme of our book. We structured our interviews accordingly.

Chuck: The nature of qualitative research (which is what we were doing) leads to new discoveries. We searched for patterns as we studied the transcripts of each interview. Some of these patterns were unexpected, and the overall process of responding to adversity evolved from our analysis. In short, the data, not our preconceived views, drove the outcomes. Some of the patterns and outcomes were puzzling, which led us to do some follow-up interviews to get a better handle on what was really at play. Again, this slow, building, and refining approach is the very part and parcel of qualitative investigations.

What wisdom do you hope readers will gleam from reading your book?

Jack: In some ways, the book is like a trail map and survival guide through the wilderness of adversity. We try to disclose what it is managers and leaders go through when a great disruption occurs in their life. But we do more than that; we identify the steps they must take to control that situation and how to work through it. The operating word is, of course, work. It takes work, and we identify the kind of work that must be done during this process.

The book, quite naturally, highlights how the successful ones do this. But not all succeed. Some fail. They are dissolved in that cauldron of adversity. And we point out how this can come to pass.

Chuck: I think readers will find both comfort and insight from the book. Readers will recognize successful leaders, like all of us, have their fair share of adversities, missteps, and crises. Yet, they will also see these leaders make choices—conscious choices of response. These leaders refused to be defined by their adversities. They refused to wallow and become shallow shells of their former selves. They were shaped by adversity, but they made decisions and took actions to help frame the nature of that shaping. We learned a lot as we studied and analyzed the interviews and searched for patterns and themes.

This book has had a good response from those who have read it because it is straightforward and real. It is also prescriptive. There are actions and responses that provide better outcomes than others, and we present them in a clear, interesting, and readable manner.

You interviewed both men and women for the book. Did gender affect the way a leader responded to adversity?

Jack: No, the process is the same for both men and women or race. There are some obstacles women and minorities face in the business world that white males don’t. But the point about adversity is how one manages these obstacles in their professional career and personal life. In this regard, the process is the same for all; and similar steps are required if a leader is to overcome it.

Chuck: I agree with Jack that the process certainly seems to be the same. Yet, we do have to be cautious. We only had five women participate in the study. Actually, the gender distribution in our study closely mirrors the demographic breakdowns of top executives we see throughout industry. The one area where there seemed to be slight differences was in the area of support networks. We found having a strong, well-developed network of people who could provide emotional, diversionary, and advisory support was extremely important as one coped with adversity. There were slight gender variations here, but we simply did not have enough data to draw meaningful conclusions on this. It would be interesting to explore the gender theme further. Maybe this should be our next study.

As a general point, after a number of years of research on gender differences in leadership, I’m not wowed by the data. I do not see conclusive evidence supporting sex-based differences in leadership. When we control for the pressures of position and circumstance, I think the differences evaporate quickly. And, as Jack stated, the overall process of dealing with adversity was highly similar across gender.

Was there a different response to adversity when it was an illness as opposed to an economic or other business crisis?

Jack: The nature of the adversity varied for everyone, but the process and the recovery was essentially the same for all. The difference was in the degree of adversity experienced. Some had life-threatening health issues. The stakes here were obviously much greater. Likewise, the urgency to put one’s life in perspective, priorities in order, and form an action plan hit harder than other kinds of adversities. Yet, everyone’s adversity is unique to them at that moment in time. The process and steps to overcoming it still remain the same.

Were all interviews conducted prior to September 11? Do you believe reactions to September 11 has and/or will play an important role in how leaders respond to adversity?

Jack: Yes, all our work was done way before September 11. Many, including our editors, thought it would be a good idea to tie some of our findings into that day of tragedy. Frankly, we resisted that impulse for several reasons. One, we believe the book should reflect what we found in our interviews. And we didn’t interview any survivors or family members of those who were murdered that day. Two, the book was written for practicing business leaders to assist them in dealing with the normal course of events experienced by the majority of managers. The events of 9-11 hardly fall within that category.

The terrorist attack, however, did affect all of us to some degree. It altered our sense of security and heightened our feelings of vulnerability. We now live with a dread that something more will happen. So, from this perspective, the book does speak to this issue.

Dr. Gilligan, you said in an InterBusiness Issues interview in April 1995, “There can be no great achievements or successes in life by individuals or organizations without discipline.” Did you find through your research that discipline was required for leadership through adversity?

Jack: That’s right. If anything, our findings support that statement in spades. Determination, stick-to-it-ness, and hard work under duress require several kinds of discipline: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral. We devote several chapters to this theme with plenty of real life examples to illustrate. So, the aphorism: “Without discipline there can be no individual or organizational success,” still holds.

Dr. Stoner, you have taught leadership classes for years at Bradley University. Have leadership traits changed over the years? 

Chuck: There have been a number of studies that tried to determine the characteristics or traits that distinguish more successful from less successful leaders.

Certain themes seem to be more relevant today than in the past. This probably has to do with the changing nature of the workforce, their shifting expectations, and a more general move toward cultures that favor involvement over command-and-control schemes of leadership. Accordingly, emotional intelligence, emotional maturity, emotional stability, integrity, and strong interpersonal skills seem to be critical. While these have always been important, they appear as essential today.

Often, people are promoted into positions of leadership because of proven technical competence. However, the realm of leadership demands a different set of behaviors. People issues and themes become so important. When the participants in our study talked about both their greatest successes and their most unfortunate failures, people concerns topped the lists. If leaders cannot build trust, address and handle conflicts, and build open and strong communication links, they will probably, sooner or later, struggle in their leader roles. Some will even derail.

Jack and I believe, and we talk about it in the book, leaders must have the ability to rebound. They must be able to bounce back and be resilient, and they must demonstrate this resilience to their people in way that is real and believable. They have to be able to say to people, “Yes, things may not look so good, but we’ve seen this kind of thing before. And we’ve through it before. And we will beat this thing again.” Largely, this is the kind of rebound spirit effective leaders project. It is a must in today’s business world. We think our book helps leaders learn this role and how to project this winning sense. IBI