5 – Attitude to Challenge

In my experience there are very different ways in which people carry an attitude to challenge. I see there are some people who want to go out and pick a fight with the world, and there are others who, when confronted run away and hide. Between these extremes some will step forward in response to those who move towards them, while others will step back.

Clearly, not all our challenges arise from others, but I think these four responses are a good way of characterising the different attitudes to challenge. I suggest that you need to adapt your attitude to challenge, to each context you face. If, for example, you always pick a fight, then you are likely to pick some fights you can’t win and others which aren’t worth winning.

Picking a fight

I’m not sure how often I have actually chosen to pick a fight. There was a particular piece of IT litigation where I felt very strongly that the party on the other side had got it wrong. I was keen, at every single opportunity, to open more avenues of attack against the position of the other party. I would suggest possible lines of enquiry and support demands for disclosure. Whenever there was an opportunity to support related cases, I was keen to engage. Ultimately, it was the persistence and sacrifice of many others that lead to a series of devastating court judgements, highlighting systemic injustice and the establishing of a public enquiry see https://www.postofficetrial.com/.    

Running away and hiding

In a business context there are situations where actually it is a David and Goliath battle. You just recognise that the other person is a Goliath and you as David don’t even have the stones to put in the sling to defeat Goliath. So graceful retreat – running away and hiding – is a sensible strategy. I can think of several situations where actually I’ve just decided that this is not a battle that I’m going to choose to fight. I recall a situation where there was a very determined leader who had a particular view of how he wanted to conduct his business. I was a director in his company, and when we got to a certain stage in the success of the company, he couldn’t cope with it, and he chose to put the company into voluntary liquidation. Maybe I could have stood and fought that challenge. Maybe I had enough shares, enough support from other directors to fight that challenge, but actually at that point in my life it was a battle I didn’t want to fight. So, I let go of it and learnt the lessons of allowing that situation to emerge and develop and took those learnings into the rest of my working life. Surprisingly, the transition that happened over the next 18 months set me up for a very exciting point in my career but certainly, by not fighting that battle, it was quite costly.

Stepping forward

I remember a situation where I was confronted with the leader of a business where I was the franchisee and they had pretty much decided that I was no longer going to be a franchisee of their business. They were going down a pathway to bring my franchise contract to an end. They were stepping towards me and shaping up for a fight. I decided I was going to make a step towards them in response. I was going to pick a fight with them. However, this was a challenge that I would rise to and demonstrate that I was to continue as a franchisee.

I did this in two ways. Both ways required me to step a long way out of my comfort zone. Firstly, I decided to step up my whole commitment to generating the sales necessary to prove my value as a franchisee. 18 months later, to the surprise of everyone including myself, I was awarded the prize at the annual franchisee’s conference for the fastest growing franchise.  

Secondly, which was even harder, was to change the way that the leader saw me. At the bi-annual franchise leaders conference there were always opportunities to engage with the various workshop activities that went on. I made the decision that I was always going to be the first person to step forward as part of a workshop exercise. My natural preference would be to step back and observe, only participating if absolutely necessary. Over the next two to three years, at every single opportunity, I stepped up and put myself forward as a participant in every workshop. Often the situations were both challenging and made me personally vulnerable.

Stepping back

I am usually reluctant to abandon a challenge that I have taken on, but, sometimes, it makes sense to take a step back and allow matters to develop further before making a decision on whether to continue to engage.  

I remember one particular situation where I was a board member of a social impact organisation and the founder chose to chair the meetings. The conduct of the meetings was very dysfunctional, frustrating and challenging. I made the decision to step back and allow the poor conduct to escalate to a point where both the other board members and the chair himself were ready for help. It was only then that I made the choice between resigning (running away and hiding) and offering to chair the meetings (stepping forward). 

Conclusions

Sometimes your challenges are in business or circumstances.  Sometimes your challenges arise from your relationships with others. Sometimes your challenges are your own personal mountains to climb. I would say to you recognise that you always have these four choices: pick a fight, run and hide, step forward or step back.

Adapt your attitude to challenges by understanding whether the cost of fighting them and your likelihood of success match the value of any victory you may achieve.

Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.