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True Leaders Overcome Adversity

In business, as in life, real leaders know how to handle adversity and turn setbacks into positive momentum and motivation.

I recently learned a little more about a high school classmate of mine who happens to be an Olympic Gold medal winner - multiple times over! I always knew Ambrose ‘Rowdy’ Gaines was a great swimmer and won at the Olympics, but I never knew about his truly compelling story. Rowdy really does reflect one of 5GG’s key leadership traits - Commitment!

Commitment: Good leaders weather the tough times when everything seems to be going wrong, and keep the organization focused on what is needed for success.

Rowdy and I grew up together in Winter Haven, Florida, but didn’t really know each other that well. We ran in different crowds - and he trained relentlessly in the pool and gym throughout his high school years ending up with a full ride to Auburn University in 1977. He set some amazing school records at Auburn while becoming an NCAA champion and the holder of numerous world records. His hope for Olympic gold was the only remaining swimming goal left to achieve in his early 20s and he was excited about the upcoming games in Moscow. But, politics and world events got in his way and Rowdy was left wondering how well he’d really match up with the world’s best athletes since the U.S. did not participate in the ‘80 Olympics.

The setback was a big one for a swimmer since age determines a lot in the sport and Rowdy felt he’d lose his edge in the 4 years between the summer games. His family and friends convinced him to remain committed to his goals and continue with his relentless training program, and his perseverance paid off. The rest is history - since Rowdy Gaines did lead the sport again in LA in ’84 where he won 3 Gold Medals and made all his friends from Winter Haven proud to be his classmate. But the story doesn’t end there - Rowdy would again be tested when he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre’ syndrome and found himself paralyzed and unable to do any of the things he enjoyed in life. True to form, he overcame this debilitating disease and ultimately became competitive in swimming again at the world class-level and productive in life.

We can all take a lesson from this impressive leader named Rowdy. Life can be difficult at times - for everyone. It can seem totally unfair for some. But rarely will any of us be faced with setbacks as big as a national boycott of the Olympic Games or a life-threatening disease. So, we should take note of the importance of remaining committed to our goals and the significance of perseverance in our lives. True leaders know how to overcome adversity and make good things happen in business.


General Polumbo entered the Air Force in 1981 as a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. He commanded at the squadron, group and wing level including a deployment as Commander of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing in the Middle East. He served in strategic planning positions in Europe as the Director of Strategy and Plans at U.S. Africa Command, and in the Pentagon as the Assistant Deputy Director for Global Operations on the Joint Staff.


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