By Steven Snyder
Leadership is often a struggle. Yet societal taboos prevent leaders from talking openly and honestly about their struggles for fear of being perceived as ineffective and inadequate. Social mores reinforce the myth that leaders are supposed to be perfect and that struggle is a sign of weakness and a source of shame. It is hard to keep these societal views in perspective, especially when facing significant challenges. This cultural programming, learned over many years, becomes ingrained, causing some leaders to lose their confidence and doubt their abilities, thinking something is wrong with them.
The best leaders learn to sidestep these unrealistic expectations by accepting themselves for who they are today while continually striving to be better tomorrow. These individuals come to understand that struggle is a natural part of leadership and that it is often the struggle itself that unlocks the potential for the greatest growth. Instead of denying the struggle or feeling diminished by it, they learn to embrace it as an art to be mastered. Consequently, they develop skills, capabilities, and practices that help them cope with—and even thrive in the midst of—challenge and adversity.
As these awakened individuals advance on their leadership journey, they gradually view themselves and their role as leaders in fundamentally different ways than they did earlier in their careers. They reach a place where they view leadership as an enriching, deeply human experience. They derive happiness and fulfillment from not only their successes but also the intrinsic nature of the journey itself.
But no leader is perfect, and struggle is a natural part of leadership. Dick Schulze, founder and former CEO of consumer electronics giant Best Buy, who built the company to more than $50 billion in sales with more than 180,000 employees, said it best when he told me: “I don’t think that there has been a year in my 45 with the company that hasn’t been beset with struggle.”
Struggle and leadership are intertwined. Teaming the courage to confront conflict with openness to new learning and the energy of positive thinking can turn struggle into transformation, paving the way for accelerated growth and development. The more that leaders move away from negative stereotypes and welcome a new relationship with struggle, the more they leave room for new possibilities to emerge. They begin asking better questions and recognizing the positive aspects of struggle. Shedding old assumptions, they free themselves to engage differently with the world around them, shaping their conversations to be more open and adaptive.
Three Defining Elements of Leadership Struggle
Struggle occurs when a difficult or complex situation arises that presents some challenge or adversity. The details can vary considerably, but there are three fundamental conditions that determine the nature of the struggle and serve as its defining elements: change, tensions, and being out of balance.
Change stands at the heart of leadership struggle. Every struggle is triggered by some type of change. Perhaps a leader initiates that change by envisioning a new direction for the organization; struggle may emerge from forces that stand in opposition to that vision. In other cases change may be imposed on a leader by a new set of enterprise-related circumstances caused by loss of key personnel, financial constraints, competitive pressures, or some other setback. Large-scale changes such as economic recession or cultural upheaval may produce more serious, long-term consequences.
Even when change is welcome, struggle is often a natural by-product. A move to a new job or company can be exciting, yet it requires a step outside the comfort zone into a puzzling new world that has yet to be comprehended, much less mastered.
The process of change creates a natural set of tensions, the second defining element of leadership struggle. These tension points stem from individual and institutional traditions (past) and aspirations (future), as well as (outward) relationships and (inward) identity.
Being Out of Balance
The third element of leadership struggle is that change and its ensuing tensions throw a leader off balance. Sometimes the imbalance is felt in subtle ways: a quiet voice, a nagging concern in the leader’s gut, or reluctance toward or procrastination of an important task. Sometimes the fears are deeper, the emotions more powerful. A leader may lose confidence and feel the weight of the world on his or her shoulders. Some individuals remain cool and collected at work and unleash all their frustration on their families when they get home. Still others may vent their stress in self-defeating behaviors such as gambling or drinking, all the while denying a problem exists. A leader’s acknowledgment and awareness of being out of balance is central to regaining balance and becoming centered again.
Playing Out the Struggle: Scripts
Leaders respond to the change, tension, and intense emotions of their struggles in different ways. I have identified six scripts that describe different progressions in a struggle episode. By understanding these scripts, leaders gain the agility to shift course midstream or even to proactively select a script in advance, circumventing problems that otherwise might have surfaced.
Script #1: Proactive Reinvention
In the proactive reinvention script, leaders recognize that strategies that may have worked in the past are no longer effective. Reinvention—the willingness to start anew with a fresh perspective—is required in order to forge new strategies that are more adaptive to the current circumstances. For example, Bill Gates reinvented a crucial aspect of his leadership model when he accepted the need for an “inverted hierarchy.” He also proactively took steps to overcome his fears, agreeing to assume the important role of product spokesperson at user group events during Microsoft’s battle for market share with Borland.
Script #2: Stumble, Recover, and Learn
After making mistakes due to inexperience, leaders who follow the stumble/recover/learn script recognize those errors and take appropriate corrective action. They also strive to repair any relationships that were damaged along the way and vow never again to repeat the pattern.
Script #3: Burnout
Passionate leaders with bold ideas may enthusiastically charge ahead in new situations, all fired up to do whatever it takes to realize their vision. But as the burnout script progresses, they encounter stakeholders who do not share their enthusiasm or their vision. These hard-charging leaders are often so convinced that their vision is superior that they fail to take the time to fully understand and appreciate anyone else’s point of view. Consequently, when their colleagues have very different ideas, the stage is set for conflict. All too often relationships are soured and enemies are made. Yet instead of stepping back to consider their role in the conflict, such leaders tend to blame others, whom they clearly see as wrong. Inevitably, their past actions restrict their future options, and they find themselves trapped in situations in which they have little control. They not only feel drained of physical and emotional energy but fail to realize how their attitude and behavior drain the energy of others, as well. Ultimately, they either leave in exhaustion or are fired.
Script #4: Transcending Constraint
In the transcending constraint script, leaders initially see tremendous obstacles ahead but feel incapable of surmounting them due to external constraints. As their adaptive energy kicks in, however, they begin reimagining the situation, revealing strategies and options that previously had escaped their awareness.
Script #5: Mission Impossible
At first the mission impossible script feels similar to the transcending constraint script. The difference is, no matter how creative and dedicated these leaders may be, every road toward resolution comes to a dead end. Ultimately, they are forced to accept that there is no way to realize their vision and aspirations. The constraints are simply insurmountable. If leaving is not an option, they are reduced to hunkering down while trying to maintain some degree of balance.
Script #6: Confronting Failure
In the confronting failure script, leaders are forced to acknowledge that things did not work out according to their plans and expectations. In a word, they have failed. The struggle is finding ways to remain resilient as they pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and move on while still learning from the experience.
There are times when struggle is inevitable. At these times leaders need to recognize what is unfolding around them, adapt their energy accordingly, and make informed, well-reasoned choices. Indeed, adaptive energy is a vital and necessary force that leaders need to harness if they are to realize their aspirations.
And yet, the art of struggle lies not in achievements but in the ripples from the journey and how we’ve grown along the way—the lives we’ve touched, the kindness we’ve shown, the ways we’ve brought to life our most important values. It is the accumulation of all of life’s choices, big and small, that creates our unique and personal gift to the world—the world we will bestow on our children.
Based on “Leadership and the Art of Struggle” by Steven Snyder (Copyright © March 2013). Reprinted with permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, CA.
Steven Snyder is the author of “Leadership and the Art of Struggle: How Great Leaders Grow through Challenge and Adversity” (Berrett-Koehler, 2013). He is currently executive in residence at University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Minnesota.
He has more than 30 years of experience as a CEO, senior executive, entrepreneur, and leadership coach. He was Microsoft’s first general business unit manager and oversaw the critical relationship between IBM and the software company. After pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology, he became CEO of start-up NetPerceptions and oversaw its IPO and growth to $1 billion in capitalization. After the Internet bubble burst, he joined the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management to teach business ethics.