All Leaders Face Adversity. Exceptional Leaders Thrive in It.
Leadership is often a struggle, and yet strong taboos keep us from talking openly and honestly about our difficulties for fear of looking weak and seeming to lack confidence. But Steven Snyder shows that this discussion is vital—adversity is precisely what unlocks our greatest potential.
Using real-life stories drawn from his extensive research studying 151 diverse episodes of leadership struggle—as well as from his experiences working with Bill Gates in the early years of Microsoft and as a CEO and executive coach—Snyder shows how to navigate intense challenges to achieve personal growth and organizational success. He details strategies for embracing struggle and offers a host of unique tools and hands-on practices to help you implement them. By mastering the art of struggle, you’ll be better equipped to meet life’s challenges and focus on what matters most.
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Steven Snyder is the founder of Snyder Leadership Group, an organizational consulting firm dedicated to cultivating inspired leadership. He is also an executive fellow in leadership at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. Snyder was an early executive at Microsoft, where he managed the company’s relationship with IBM and was the general manager of a business unit. Later, Snyder became CEO of the Internet startup Net Perceptions, where he won the World Technology Award for Commerce.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I WAS SPELLBOUND WATCHING THE FIRST PUBLIC DEMONSTRATION of the Lisa, Apple’s first computer with a graphical user interface (GUI). Steve Jobs had introduced the Lisa to journalists in New York City the week before, and his presentations had been electrifying. The event I attended in January 1983, which took place at the old New England Life Hall, was hosted by the Boston Computer Society, the world’s largest computer user group. Like many in the audience, I had been eagerly anticipating the arrival of this bold new technology that promised to bring us to the cusp of a new age of computing.
What I did not know then was that, behind his charisma and bravado, Jobs was deeply conflicted and struggling on multiple levels. He had been thrown off the Lisa team because of detrimental, counterproductive behavior. Even as he was publicly extolling the virtues of the Lisa, he was doing everything he could within Apple to undermine its success in favor of the Macintosh. Adding to the irony on a personal level, the Lisa had been named for the daughter whom Jobs had abandoned, just as he himself had been abandoned by his own parents as an infant. In May 1985, Jobs’s aggressive, disrespectful, take-no-prisoners management style would contribute to his losing a power struggle with John Sculley—the chief executive officer that he had handpicked, wooed, and once called friend. Disillusioned and despondent, he left the company he had helped to found.
The Steve Jobs who emerged two decades later to deliver the 2005 Stanford University commencement address was a very different person. He had confronted his struggles, personal and professional, and had navigated through a number of challenges. He was on his way to becoming one of the most influential leaders of our time. Even though he died tragically young in 2011, his life is a testament to personal growth, leadership development, and human potential. Not only did Jobs push the boundaries of what was considered possible, he radically changed our thinking about leadership and innovation. He maximized his own contribution, left us wondering what more might have followed, and inspired us to see the benefits of shifting our perspective and thinking in new ways. Through his struggles Jobs had redefined his purpose in life and transformed his leadership energies in service to this core purpose.
Steve Jobs was not a perfect man or a perfect leader. He was a leader who struggled, like all of us, and whose life and leadership illustrated the developmental metamorphosis that is available to us all. All we need to do is choose it.
Viewing Struggle as an Art
Leadership is often a struggle. Yet societal taboos often 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.
Everyone is at their own unique stage in the leadership continuum and in their mastery of the art of struggle. Some leaders, especially those who are just starting out, may not be aware that their behavior is counterproductive. They have no self-regulatory mechanism, no brakes. Some are so oblivious that they just plunge ahead until they run into a brick wall. They have no awareness of how their own choices and blind spots get them into trouble, and they blame others for their misfortune.
Some continue to repeat the same mistakes over and over. They go from one job to another, acting out the same patterns, reenacting the same scripts. As these scripts play out, they produce the same predictable, unsatisfactory results. Yet they lack the insight to connect the dots between their own unenlightened behavior and the unfavorable outcomes they grumble about.
Great leaders use failure as a wake-up call. Instead of blaming others, they seek out the counsel of a mentor and/or turn their attention inward for reflection and introspection. They become aware of how their own behaviors and practices contribute to undesirable outcomes and resolve to break from past habits, to begin anew. The next time they encounter the same constellation of circumstances, they try a different approach. Choosing a new script frees them from the prison of stale thinking and unproductive behavior and leads to an understanding of how they can work with others to achieve some larger purpose or mission.
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.
My goal is to meet you where you are right now and guide you to take your leadership to the next level. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or intimidated at any point in the process, I urge you to press forward. I truly believe that you will come to look forward to the challenges that await you, with anticipation, eagerness, and a newfound sense of confidence. Whether you feel self-conscious or self-assured, you will learn about potential pitfalls in the road ahead and how best to avoid them.
If you are immersed in a difficult leadership challenge and feeling trapped in a situation that seems beyond your control, the ideas and the exercises in this book can help reignite your sense of empowerment and spur you to brainstorm creative new solutions. Even if you consider yourself an accomplished leader with an extensive résumé of achievements, the insights you glean from these pages may expand your view of leadership and better equip you to coach others through their own struggles.
Ultimately, I am confident that you will find value in this book because it is a synthesis of collective wisdom from extraordinary leaders. They have gone through the same struggles you have. They have found the paths that are best for them. I am certain that you will find the path that is best for you.
Fulfilling your potential as a leader requires that you think differently about leadership. You must recast your struggles as positive learning experiences and view them as necessary steps in your development as a leader. You must look at leadership through an entirely different lens.
Leadership through a Different Lens
Some years ago I heard a former classmate of mine, Joe Badaracco, speak about a course he was teaching at Harvard Business School. He and his students studied leadership through the lens of literature. Instead of the usual case studies, the course examined the lives of fictional characters in literary works such as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Badaracco’s premise was that fiction opens a new portal on leadership, deepening the understanding of leadership as a human endeavor, a reality that is often absent in other leadership approaches.
By delving into the raw humanity of these flawed yet often heroic characters, Badaracco guided his students to a compelling insight:
Leadership is a struggle by flawed human beings to make some important human values real and effective in the world as it is.
This concept may push some people out of their comfort zone. In a world influenced by relentlessly upbeat urgings, leaders may feel awkward about acknowledging that they struggle. It is understandable that leaders may be too deeply embarrassed to reveal their flaws—or to admit that they even have flaws. This reluctance is why Badaracco’s lens—let’s call it the Struggle Lens—is so crucial. It offers a visceral understanding of the human condition, which is the key to unlocking leadership potential and awakening the mind to an expanded menu of choices and possibilities. Let’s examine this Struggle Lens point by point.
Leadership … The Struggle Lens begins with several different assumptions about leadership. While other leadership models implicitly draw a distinction between leaders and followers, this lens is egalitarian: Everyone who engages in the struggle to make important human values real and effective is practicing leadership. Similarly, while other leadership models focus only on external behaviors, the Struggle Lens expands this view to also embrace the inner experience of the leader.
… is a struggle … Yes, leadership is a struggle, at least some of the time. It is vitally important to face this struggle head on—not hiding from it or feeling shame—because struggle is the gateway to learning and growth.
… by flawed human beings… All human beings have their own unique frailties. Some may argue that people should concentrate on developing their strengths and take no notice of their weaknesses. But conveniently ignoring blind spots, as noted in chapter 7, can lead to serious trouble. By acknowledging that you are imperfect, you give voice to a fundamental truth about what it is to be human, ope...
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