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Learn how to be effective at handling a single negative occurrence, a series of negative occurrences, or an unfavorable condition with our guide.


  • What do we mean by setbacks and adversity?

  • Why is it important to focus on overcoming setbacks and adversity?

  • When should you work to overcome setbacks and adversity?

  • How do you, as a leader, overcome setbacks and adversity?

Leaders must provide real leadership by communicating well, and keeping the organization and its staff and volunteers focused on the future. However, the true measure of a leader depends on how they handle setbacks and adversity. This section provides a guide to help you and other leaders within your organization work to overcome setbacks.

What do we mean by setbacks and adversity?

For the purposes of this section, we’ll consider setbacks and adversity as distinct from each other. Each demands something slightly different from a leader, as we’ll explore in the rest of the section.


A setback is a single event or specific series of events that impedes your forward progress as an organization. Perhaps the city knocked down a historic building you were trying to protect. The Legislature slashed the budget of your major funder, despite your advocacy efforts.  After two years, evaluation of your teen pregnancy prevention program shows an increase in teen pregnancy among members of the population you’re working with. The local TV station inaccurately accuses your organization of misusing public money.

These are all setbacks. They’re one-time, one-of-a-kind occurrences that may leave you wondering why you’re doing health or community work at all. They haven’t exactly defeated you, but they’ve caused you to pull back and regroup. Even in the last of the examples above, where the news story is inaccurate, you’ll have to deal with people’s memories of the story and their assumptions that it was true, at least for a while.      


Adversity, rather than a distinct occurrence, is more likely to be an ongoing unfavorable condition. It may or may not set you back, but it often makes it harder to move forward.  You might, for instance, have ongoing difficulty reaching the population you’re concerned with, or your organization might never have quite enough money. The community, or a particular group, might oppose your work. (Think of trying to establish homeless shelters or halfway houses for recently-released prisoners in residential neighborhoods.) Unlike setbacks, which are often single events, adversity can last a long time, and encompass many events and changes in circumstances.

One human service program struggled for the first several years of its existence with inadequate funding.  Staff members were paid so little that many were eligible for some form of public assistance.  There were no insurance benefits, and the Executive Director worked full time for several years for 80% of his official salary.  Paying the rent was always a struggle, and the Director sometimes had to negotiate payment plans with the phone company and others in order to make sure that payroll checks would clear.  It took nearly ten years before finances were reasonably stable.

As you might expect, setbacks and adversity require different responses from leaders.  A setback often needs a quick and specific response. It’s as if you’re driving kids to school, and come to a tree fallen across the road. You’ll have to stop quickly, so as not to hit it, and then either turn around and find another route, or move the tree so you can go on. Either way, the kids will be restless and excited, and they’ll probably be late for school.  If the obstruction is large, it may take some concerted effort over a period of time, and perhaps a lot of interpersonal skill, to keep the organization on an even keel while you absorb and move beyond whatever has fallen in your path. The effects of many setbacks, however, are limited in time: once you’ve dealt with them, you can move on.

Adversity is more like a long family trip on a bad road in bad weather: you’ll need a steady hand on the wheel and a steady focus on the road, the traffic, and the conditions until the trip is over.  Your concentration has to be on getting your family safely to the end of the journey. That’s more like a leader’s role in adversity: she has to keep moving steadily forward through difficulty, bringing the rest of the organization with her.

Setbacks and adversity can also be internal to an organization or movement.  When a respected and competent leader leaves or – worse – dies, there is often confusion and uncertainty for a period of time: that’s a setback.  When staff members don’t communicate, insist on protecting their turf, and continually try to undermine the leader and one another, that’s an adverse situation that can poison an organization for a long time.

Why is it important to focus on overcoming setbacks and adversity?

Just about any health or community service organization experiences setbacks and adversity from time to time. It comes with the territory. Why worry about it specifically? The answer is that these can be critical situations in the life of an organization, and how a leader handles them can make or break it. There are several reasons why coping well with and overcoming setbacks and adversity are important.

To keep the organization moving forward

Organizations, like individuals, have to keep learning and changing for the better if they’re to remain healthy. Setbacks and adversity, if they’re not handled properly, can stop an organization from moving forward, and even throw it into reverse. Regardless of how difficult life may be at a given time, the organization has to keep moving toward its goals, and trying to improve its work and functioning every day, in small ways and large. In hard times, a leader can set a tone that ensures progress, even while everyone’s picking himself up off the floor.

To avoid discouragement and despair

When things go wrong, it can be easy to start feeling as if there’s no point to your work. Furthermore, when one person – particularly a leader – gets discouraged, her attitude can quickly spread to others. When an organization, like a person, gets depressed, it becomes much harder to work, to see small successes, and to put up with everyday problems and frustrations. When the going is rough, leaders can bolster people’s spirits, and help them believe that troubles will end and things will get better.

To keep staff and volunteer morale high

It isn’t enough just to keep an organization from despair. If you are to continue to do high-quality work, staff members and volunteers have to retain their passion and dedication. A leader can set the tone by demonstrating her own passion for the work, and by encouraging everyone to do his best, despite any difficulties that might be plaguing the organization.

To maintain standing in the community

Overcoming setbacks or adversity can help your reputation in two ways. First, by maintaining a high standard of service, performance, or advocacy, you establish yourself as an effective organization. Second, if the community is aware of your difficulties, your ability to overcome them can demonstrate your organizational competence, your dedication to your work, and your determination to continue to serve the community through bad times as well as good.

To add to your and the organization’s store of knowledge

Setbacks and adversity often present the best opportunities for learning. Just as children learn by experimenting and making mistakes, organizations do, too. When you’ve run into trouble, whether through your own doing or because of outside forces, you’ve learned something valuable, and can usually figure out how to avoid that trouble in the future. Finding a way out of your present trouble also leads to learning that will strengthen your organization over the long term. Many management consultants and business experts see setbacks and adversity as potential advantages rather than drawbacks, because of what you can learn from them and the opportunities for growth they represent.

To enhance your development as a person and as a leader

Facing setbacks and adversity is a character- and leadership-building experience that all leaders – in fact, all humans – go through. Each time you have to deal with difficulties, you gain new knowledge and new skills, personal as well as professional. Being tested in this way is how great leaders become great leaders, and it’s how you can begin to realize your leadership potential.

To maintain the organization’s faith in its leadership

Here’s where true leadership shows itself. If you can handle a difficult situation or condition and keep things on an even keel, your organization will be more likely to follow you anywhere.  If you fall apart when things don’t go smoothly, you’ll have less credibility as a leader in the future.

To keep the focus on your mission, and continue to serve or work for those at whom the effort is aimed

The purpose of your organization is to serve the community, whether as a health or other service provider, an advocate, a watchdog, or in some other capacity. When faced with setbacks or adversity, it’s vital that you not forget or ignore your mission, and continue to pursue your vision for the organization and for social change.

When should you work to overcome setbacks and adversity?

The question here is one of time, rather than timing. Setbacks and adversity each require a different kind of time sense from a leader.


In the case of a setback, action should usually be immediate, and geared specifically to removing the obstacle or reversing the situation, whatever it is. What can you do to turn things around and find yourself in the positive column again?

If something you’ve worked for simply isn’t going to happen – that historic building has already been demolished – you have to find a new goal that’s related to the one that just got away, and use what you’ve learned in the current situation to make sure you reach it.  Work to preserve other historic buildings in the same neighborhood, for instance, and find a lawyer who has experience in this area to help you pro bono (i.e., for no fee, as a community service).

When the situation is reversible, you should quickly make an effort to turn it around. If an evaluation reveals that your approach to an issue isn’t working, determine what’s at fault – the approach itself, the way you’re implementing it, cultural differences between staff and participants, etc. – and fix it as quickly as possible. That may mean anything from a minor change in method to a complete overhaul of a program. Whatever it entails, it usually needs to be done as soon as possible, before the organization’s ineffectiveness causes it permanent damage.

If you act quickly and decisively enough, you can turn a setback into a victory. At the very least, you can keep it from paralyzing your organization and seriously harming those your organization seeks to benefit.


With adversity, your action may be longer term and ongoing.  You’re working to overcome not a single event, but a condition: it may take a while, and call for various kinds and levels of action.  The important factor here is perseverance – you have to keep at it until things get better.  Sometimes an adverse situation can call for quick action to keep it from getting worse, but generally it requires steadiness and a commitment to moving forward regardless of the difficulty.

Sometimes, there are obvious ways to forge ahead.  If your organization is in debt or financially strapped, you shouldn’t be operating out of a high-rent office full of new furniture, unless both the space and the furnishings are donated. You’ll have to be thrifty for as long as it takes to pay off any debts and put the organization back on firm financial footing.

Slow and steady generally wins the race here. Your actions as a leader don’t have to be quick or flashy – unless the situation calls for it, as it might in the case of an emergency, or a grant possibility or other opportunity – but they do have to keep the organization moving toward with both its long-term goals and the goal of overcoming its adverse circumstances.

Sometimes, on the other hand, even in the case of a setback, the best course is to take the time you need to understand the situation before you take specific action to counter it.  It’s important, as we’ll see, to take action, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be directly related to resolving the immediate problem in order to have a positive effect on the organization.

Delaying too long isn’t a good idea, but taking enough time to ensure that you’re going in the right direction might be, if the circumstances call for it.  If you don’t quite know yet what the best course of action is, it may be wise to step back and analyze your options before you commit yourself.

How do you, as a leader, overcome setbacks and adversity?

As a leader, you have special responsibilities in difficult times. No matter what style of leader you are – even, or perhaps especially, if you’re highly collaborative – people will look to you to see how they should react to the situation, and to find out what to do. They’ll expect you to have some ideas, and to guide them through what may be a frightening period.  (After all, staff members may be faced with the possibility of losing their jobs.) If you fall apart, or make it clear you have no idea what to do, the organization can easily fall into despair or worse, and your reputation as a leader will erode, perhaps never to return.

On the other hand, if you approach setbacks and adversity as opportunities for growth, you can not only keep your organization steady, but move it forward. Even if you make mistakes – perhaps especially if you do – the experience can lead to a greater understanding of your situation and your work, and help to advance the organization. Remember that the Chinese symbol for “crisis” is made up of the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity.” You may not be in crisis, but any setback or adverse situation presents both danger and opportunity. If you keep opportunity in the foreground, the chances are good that you’ll easily overcome or skirt the danger by moving the organization to another level.

Although setbacks and adversity may call for slightly different approaches, there are some general guidelines that should prove useful in dealing with both. We’ll discuss these, and look at how you might respond differently in different situations. Remember that we’re talking about you as a leader here – although these are not bad rules for organizations in general, they’re particularly relevant for those in leadership positions.

The first eight of the guidelines below refer to how a leader should present himself and behave in difficult circumstances. The rest suggest ways in which he might change the situation.

Stay calm

It’s essential that you maintain a calm and confident manner, no matter how difficult or bleak the situation may seem.  Everyone else will key on you: if you stay calm and seem to be in control, the rest of the organization will as well.  If you panic, or seem harried, the rest of the organization will imitate that, too. Then you’ll have two adverse situations to deal with: the original one, and the mood of panic in the organization.

The other obvious reason for staying calm is that it will allow you to assess the situation and decide what to do about it. If you're panicking or thrown off by the seriousness of whatever you have to cope with, you’re not likely to be able to think clearly and make good decisions.

This rule works for both setbacks and adversity.  In the case of a setback, panic, while it might be appropriate, is exactly the wrong reaction. It will disrupt the organization’s work, cause staff members and/or volunteers to lose heart, and make it that much more difficult to reverse, manage, or prevent whatever damage the original event might cause.

In a long-term adverse situation – opposition from another group, a chronic lack of funding – calmness on the part of a leader makes everyone feel that someone’s in control and knows how to get through the difficulty.


Let everyone know exactly what’s going on, and keep them informed as the situation develops. If you don’t, rumors will take the place of real information, and panic may set in. The stories that people make up are usually much worse than the reality. Even if they’re not, not knowing what’s going on is generally far more frightening than knowing the truth, even when the truth is unpleasant.

Take action

Do something – it’s crucial that people see that someone is taking charge and addressing the situation. The action may not be an immediate solution to the problem at hand, but it should at least convey the impression that you’re working on it. It might involve setting up a planning committee (see below) or a communication system so that everyone keeps informed. Whatever steps you take, take them as soon as possible.

When your organization has just experienced a setback, it’s important to establish the fact that both you, as a leader, and the organization will be active – you won’t wait for something positive to happen, you’ll make something positive happen to offset the blow you’ve just received. In adversity, the goal is the same – to both appear and be active – but the kind of action needed may be somewhat different. Adversity may call for determining and doggedly pursuing a goal over time, taking action along the way as necessary. In both cases, it’s important that both you and the organization choose your course and follow it, rather than letting events or external forces choose it for you.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt was sworn in as President of the U.S. in 1933, the country was in the depths of the Great Depression.  25% of the workforce was unemployed, every city was filled with homeless and hungry people, and the nation was on the verge of social chaos.  Roosevelt was unfailingly upbeat in the face of the worst financial conditions the U.S. has ever faced, giving people hope in such speeches as his Inaugural, when he promised that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  But he did more than give speeches.

On his second day as President, FDR acted to save the nation’s banks, which were besieged by depositors demanding their money in the fear that if they didn’t withdraw it immediately, it would all be lost.  By declaring a “bank holiday,” closing the banks for eight days until the money situation could be brought under control, he established himself as a decisive and able leader and a man of action.

In his first 100 days as President, Roosevelt started much of the New Deal, a complex of agencies and projects that pumped federal money into addressing unemployment and poverty.  By the end of that three-month period, the U.S. had already decided that it had the leader it needed to pull it back from the brink of disaster.  Roosevelt continued to take action in the face of adversity throughout his presidency.  At least partially as a result, he became the only President elected to four terms, and is considered by most historians to be, along with Washington and Lincoln, one of the three greatest and most inspirational of American presidents.

Determine what went wrong, and use your analysis to fix the problem if it’s within your control, or to cope with it, if it’s not

Were you or the organization responsible for the situation? If you, as leader, take care of finances, and you overspent your budget, that’s your responsibility. If your program proved ineffective, that’s the organization’s responsibility. Whatever the case, you have to be fearlessly honest in assessing the situation, so that you can understand how to fix things.

If the situation is beyond your control – the state fiscal crisis resulted in a cut in funds; the transit authority rerouted the bus so that it now stops six blocks away instead of at your front door; there’s a new drug on the street that’s resulted in a huge increase in both violence and overdoses – what seems to have caused it?  Are there ways around it? Are there things you could do that would affect it?  Try to analyze the situation so you can understand how to deal with it.

The other result of understanding how you got into this situation should be a strategy for not getting into it again.  That may be a matter of installing better controls on your finances, communicating better with the community, creating a new program structure or method – whatever addresses a way of preventing this problem in the future.  In some cases, that may require a whole new way of thinking about your work, your funding, or your organization.  Remember that the purpose of the organization is to fulfill its mission.  You should do whatever is necessary to make sure that the organization can continue to accomplish that purpose, as long as it’s ethical and doesn’t violate the principles on which the organization was founded.

The one exception to this last rule occurs when the organization is founded on principles that are flawed to begin with.  Many organizations originally served only white people, for example, often as a result of conditions written into a will or deed.  In a case like that, violating the original principles of the organization may be an ethical and moral duty.

Develop a strategic plan for coping with the situation

This plan should cover the whole organization, even if the setback or adverse circumstances only affect part of it, and should include a way to keep the current situation from recurring. If it’s caused by something beyond your control, look for a way to take over control of that area of your work. If it’s a funding issue, for instance, perhaps you can diversify your funding (i.e., find a variety of funding sources instead of depending on only one or a small number) so that a cut from any one source won’t affect you seriously.

Involve everyone in the organization in planning your strategy

If you’re a small group, you might all plan the course of the organization together. If you’re large, with many employees and volunteers, or a number of departments, you could either draft an overall plan with representatives of the various areas of the organization, or the staff and/or volunteers in each department or site might draft plans for their own area, with representatives coming together regularly to blend these plans into a larger plan for the organization as a whole.

Involving all staff and/or volunteers brings many minds to the planning process, often resulting in better ideas and more information. If staff members and volunteers collaborate in planning the organization’s future, they’ll take ownership of the plan and the organization, and work hard to make both succeed. More important, people feel a great deal less helpless when they can be part of the solution to a problem. It’s far more likely that the work of the organization will maintain, and even increase, its quality if staff and volunteers are part of the solution to whatever problems are plaguing them.  In many cases, it may make sense to enlist program participants in planning as well, both because they can bring a valuable perspective to the task, and because they, too, can benefit from feeling that they have some control over their situation.

Involving staff members and volunteers in difficult situations also gives you the opportunity to encourage them to take responsibility and develop leadership skills.  Developing new leadership within the organization (or the community) is part of the job of a good leader, and adverse situations offer a great chance to do it.

Ask for help from outside the organization if you need it . . . and sometimes even if you don’t

If there isn’t the expertise or knowledge within the organization to address the situation, there are others out there who can help. Other leaders of non-profits who’ve been through something similar, funders, academics, business people – all may have ideas and strategies to offer, depending on the situation you’re grappling with. The advantage of bringing in outside help is that, in addition to providing what the organization lacks, it can gain you greater community understanding of your work and your needs, and thus greater community support.

Emphasize moving the organization forward

Set a goal to replace one that wasn’t fulfilled, or to advance the organization. It should be reachable, so the organization can have some success, but not so easy that achieving it doesn’t feel like an accomplishment.

Any organization, whether it’s struggling or highly successful, has to keep developing and striving to improve if it’s to become or remain effective. You may have been pushed back, or you may be stalled by adverse circumstances, but your thrust should always be forward, rather than just to retain or regain ground. Everyone in the organization should be concentrating on the future and on moving ahead, as well as on coping with current troubles. That will both keep everyone focused on the organization’s real goal – fulfilling its mission – and put it in a better position to overcome present problems and prevent future ones.

Accentuate the positive

Keep things upbeat and focused on what’s going right, not what’s going wrong. You can’t ignore the problem or the difficult situation, but you can emphasize that that’s not all that’s happening.  If you’re having fiscal problems, but participants are receiving good services, for instance, praise staff members for the good job they’re doing, and encourage them to keep up the quality of their work.  It’s much easier to face and address setbacks and adversity if all in the organization are convinced of the value of what they’re doing and are receiving positive reinforcement for it.  Emphasizing the positive will strengthen staff and/or volunteer morale, and keep the organization heading in the right direction.

A related step you can take here is to build on individuals’ and the organization’s strengths, rather than expending all your energy trying to correct their weaknesses.  This will help morale, as well as build on what you already do well.  It may be that you’re trying to do the wrong things.  If you can discover that in the course of dealing with a difficult situation, you’ve been given a huge gift, and you have a chance to change the approach of the organization for the better.

As leader, share the hardships of the situation with the rest of the organization

In that example of adversity mentioned earlier, the Executive Director – who didn’t make much more than the rest of the staff – took a pay cut to keep the organization solvent. Military commanders in the field often take pains to live under the same conditions as their troops, in order to emphasize that they’re all in it together, and that they wouldn’t ask anyone to endure hardship without enduring the same hardship themselves. This kind of action and attitude strengthens your credibility as a leader, and increases the dedication with which staff members and volunteers will work to improve the situation.

Use the situation to build solidarity within the organization

None of you will be able to overcome setbacks and adversity unless you all work together and support one another.  You may actually be able to increase staff and volunteer morale and dedication to one another and the organization by emphasizing that fact. The more you back up your words by involving everyone in finding solutions to problems and in helping one another, the more likely it is that the organization will come out the other side of the current difficulty stronger and more able than before.

Despite the seriousness of what you’re going through, make sure to make time to socialize and have fun together occasionally. You might schedule a weekly staff brown bag lunch, go out for pizza, have a volunteer appreciation party, or just gather late in the day to talk over coffee. Do whatever you can to build a sense of shared commitment; it will pay huge dividends in the long run, and will make work more pleasant for everyone, including you.

Make sure everyone in the organization – including you – gets the emotional and other support that is needed

Either as part of the process of building solidarity described just above, or through other mechanisms, give staff, volunteers, participants, and board members a chance to talk about the current situation, and to work through feelings of frustration or powerlessness. They need to know that you support them and appreciate what they do, and they need to support one another, so that no one feels that she’s trying to cope with a trying situation all alone.

That includes you, as a leader. You don’t have to – and shouldn’t – bear the whole weight of the organization on your shoulders. Find a source of support for yourself – a counselor, a fellow director, a spiritual advisor, a close friend – who can listen to and empathize with your frustrations and exhaustion, and remind you of what you’re doing right. It can make a world of difference both for you and for the organization.

Don’t be too serious

Humor is often the best response to tough times. It helps people understand that this isn’t the end of the world, but only a temporary condition that you can overcome and move on from. It also keeps everyone from dwelling on the negative, and gives staff and volunteers leave to vent their frustrations in humor as well. It’s a good outlet, and a good morale booster.

Point out the learning that came out of the situation

What you’ve learned about the organization as a result of this process can be a valuable tool for the future. This isn’t the last time you’ll face a setback or an adversity. You’ve used what you learned in the past to approach the current situation, and you can use what you’ve learned from this one to address situations that arise in the future.Try to ensure that everyone in the organization understands the lessons of the current situation, and record it in some way if you can, so it will be accessible to the organization after you and many of the others involved have left.

Always keep the big picture in mind

Remember that this situation is probably only temporary. Don’t allow it to cloud your vision or derail your mission. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to keep the organization focused on its main goals.You can do that by always steering the organization toward problem-solving strategies and actions that are consistent with its larger vision and mission, and constantly checking that any steps you take are aimed at those ends. If you weather a setback by violating the basic principles of the organization, you haven’t succeeded in overcoming an obstacle. Rather, you’ve let adversity mold your organization into something it wasn’t meant to be.

Don’t let up

Even after the situation has changed for the better, continue working to ensure that you don’t fall into the same circumstances again. Many of the guidelines above are just as valuable when things are going well as they are when you’re facing setbacks or adversity: staying calm, communicating within the organization, moving forward, accentuating the positive, being honest about mistakes, planning – all of these are highly desirable traits in a leader, and highly desirable characteristics in an organization. They can not only help you overcome setbacks and adversity, but can help you reach and maintain excellence when times are good.

In Summary

The real measure of a leader comes when things aren’t going well. How she handles setbacks and adversity determines both how good a leader she is, and how people will view her leadership.

Setbacks – generally a one-time occurrences that may be serious, but not ongoing – and adversity – a longer-term difficult condition – are different and make different demands on leaders.  The first often responds to quick and decisive action, the second to a steady style of leadership that keeps long-term goals in view.

In either case, leaders must provide real leadership by projecting calmness and competence, keeping the organization and its staff and volunteers focused on the future, communicating well, providing emotional support, and involving people in resolving the problems that have led to the current situation. As with most leadership tasks, overcoming setbacks and adversity also requires continuing effort, even after the immediate difficulty is left behind, to make sure a similar situation doesn’t place the organization in jeopardy again.

Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

Key features of being an effective leader in times of adversity.”  Address by Gen. Peter Cosgrove, Chief of Australian Defence Force, AFP College, Aug. 22, 2002.

Leadership and Management: Turning Adversity to Advantage provides quotes on failure and the uses of adversity.

Navigating Change and Adversity,” by Jim Clemmer, management consultant.  How to be a Navigator, rather than a Survivor or a Victim.

What to do when things go wrong outlines a list of problems with corresponding symptoms and solutions for groups, specifically coalitions. 

Wired to Inspire: Leading Organizations Through Adversity, by Meena S. Wilson and Susan S. Rice, LIA, 24, no.2, May/June 2004.