Adversity: The Leader's Shining Time



English Poet, Edward Young

When hard times come, the true self shows!

The River of Doubt is Candice Millard's fascinating account of Theodore Roosevelt's dangerous journey into the Brazilian rain forest. Following his failed bid for a third presidential term in 1912, Roosevelt teamed with Brazilian explorer Colonel Cândido Rondon to descend the uncharted River of Doubt. Their team met incredible hardships during the five-month expedition:

Malaria was rampant. Hunger pains were constant. The rain was unrelenting. The jungle was a cauldron of threats: Indian attacks, alligators, poisonous snakes, unseen predators, and the incessant barrage of insects of every kind. One man drowned; another was murdered. Roosevelt himself almost died from disease and infection.

Adversity reveals character!

Millard helps her readers to see this as she weaves the words of Roosevelt's son, Kermit, with her own assessment of the impact of the persistent challenges they faced:

The accumulation of disease, hunger, exhaustion, and fear had begun to wear the men down, and their true selves were starting to show through. 'There is a universal saying to the effect that it is when men are off in the wilds that they show themselves as they really are,' Kermit wrote. 'As in the case with the majority of proverbs there is much truth in it, for without the minor comforts of life to smooth things down . . . the inner man has an unusual opportunity of showing himself--and he is not always attractive.[1]

Roosevelt's "true self" was one of generosity and steely resolve. Facing his own dark night of the soul, the former president never expected privileged treatment, not even when his own life was at stake. It was indeed his "shining time."

Adversity is either a leader's "shining time" or the moment when his character loses its sheen.

Of course, one need not be traversing an uncharted river in the Amazon rain forest to discover this. There is plenty of mean country in the city. The office can be a jungle, the university a spiritual desert, and even the home can become a lonely wilderness at times.

It is in these unintended safaris that the true self shows. They also serve as the means God uses to produce leadership staying power in our lives.


It is not always difficult to lead, but leaders will always face difficulties. Even the most cursory summary of history--inside and outside of the pages of the Bible--reveals one commonality: All leaders face adversity.

  • Moses led a stiff-necked group of followers.
  • King David's soldiers threatened to stone him. His son rebelled against him.
  • The Apostle Paul faced a litany of challenges: physical, emotional, and spiritual.
  • The reformer Martin Luther had to run for his life.
  • James Madison, who struggled to give us the Bill of Rights, was met with constant criticism.
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt battled the debilitating effects of polio on his body and his soul.
  • Missionary Elizabeth Elliott was widowed, her husband Jim, killed by the people he gave his life to reach.
  • Business leaders, team leaders, political leaders, civil rights leaders, church leaders--even shift leaders at the local quick service restaurant-- all face adversity.
  • Where have you faced adversity? If it hasn't come it will. Leaders don't relish these times, but they are not surprised when they arrive. The English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626), noted:
"The pencil of the Holy Ghost hath labored more in describingthe afflictions of Job, than the felicities of Solomon."[2]


There are benefits to difficulties. I love the words of Abigail Adams to her son, John Quincy, as he prepared to travel to France with his father. The younger Adams did not want to go. Abigail's words are insightful:

These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and statesman.[3]

Great character is formed in great hardships. This truth is illustrated in the life of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt did not contract polio until he was thirty-nine. The disease crushed him, but it also forged his character. One of his biographers, Jonathan Alter writes,

Most of all, the polio he contracted . . . changed the way he related to other people; the iron braces on his legs helped to forge his iron will. He learned to reject received opinion and respect "the common man" who had previously escaped his attention.[4]

Alter describes how FDR's old "streak of vanity and insincerity" were lessened; how he learned to get along with less and appreciate people more. Alter quotes Louis Howe, one of Roosevelt's closest advisors:

Louis Howe told his secretary, Lela Stiles: Then suddenly he was flat on his back with nothing to do but think. He began to read, he talked, gathered people around him--his thoughts expanded, his horizons expanded. He began to see the other fellow's point of view. He thought of others who were ill and afflicted or in want. He dwelt on many things which had not bothered him much before. Lying there, he grew bigger by the day (italics mine).

Not every leader grows bigger when they encounter adversity. While some rise to great heights, others implode. What carries a leader at these times?

The Christian understands that the staying power for adversity cannot be bought at the bookstore or gleaned from a conference. It is an "inside-out" work of God.


The Greeks had a term for the tempered tenacity to "shine" in tough times. The word was HUPOMONE. It conveyed the steadfast spirit that keeps one going in the midst of the toughest challenges. The Biblical writer, James, tells us that kind of staying power is just what God wants to produce in you and me.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness (HUPOMONE). And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. James 1:2-5 ESV

God transforms my adversity as he transforms my attitude. Christian leaders don't have "the corner on the market" when it comes to shining in adverse situations, but they do have the inside track for how to do so.

Through James, God shows us four resolves we can and must make for our adversity to become our shining time:

  1. I will be glad in my adversity. James says, Count it all joy! Hearing James' admonition we might think, "Is he nuts?" Actually, the kind of joy James describes is not a belly laugh. It is a good mood of the soul. It is the good mood I adopt--not because of what is happening to me--but because of what God is doing in me. When adversity comes I know God is using it to develop perseverance, a "spiritual staying power," in my life. God is putting spiritual muscle on my leadership frame. He is often preparing me for "heavy lifting" that he wants to accomplish through me for his glory. I can be glad about that.
  2. I will be patient in my adversity. God's timetable is God's timetable. He doesn't need to consult me for my "okay." When James counsels his readers with the words, And let steadfastness have its full effect, he is urging them to submit to God's growth process. Mushrooms may grow overnight, but oak trees do not. God is using your adversity to transform you into an oak. Be patient.
  3. I will remember the bigger picture. What is the purpose of adversity? God wants me to be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. God's goal is nothing less than my spiritual maturity. He is far more interested in growing me through my adversity than just getting me through it. I must remember this.
  4. I will ask God for his help. God's offer of wisdom is open-ended: If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all. If you want it, he's got it. Just ask. But ask confidently. Trust God to come through with the insight you need -- and he will!

I'll return once more to Abigail Adams, a great woman of God and a great leader in her own right. This time she was on the receiving end of a letter from her friend, Mercy Otis Warren. Mercy "summoned her to noble sacrifice" with these words:

Great advantages are often attended with great inconveniences,and great minds called to severe trials.[5]

May God grow you through your inconveniences and temper your character through your trials, in order that your affliction becomes your shining time--for His glory.


[1] Candice Millard, The River Of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey. Page 252. [2] Francis Bacon, The Essays, "Of Adversity." Page 24. [3] Abigail Adams to John Quincy in 1777. From John Adams, by David McCullough. Page 226. [4] Jonathan Alter, The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days And The Triumph Of Hope. Page 11. [5] Mercy Otis Warren to Abigail Adams, 1777. Referenced in John Adams, by David McCullough. Page 173.