Can You Have Success In Leadership Without Struggle?

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Can you?  I am really asking this question.  And I am of the opinion that you do not.  Notice that I didn’t say “cannot.”  Because I suppose it is mathematically possible.  But I think struggle is certainly the norm.

I understand that this is an unpopular stance. Societally, we think of struggle as being a negative thing. At the very least society assumes you are doing it wrong if you are struggling. There’s a cultural stigma attached to struggling.

Real leaders know that it’s not all smiley faces. Struggle and leadership go hand in hand. But we don’t talk about it enough. Most folks want to hear about the success and the gain. They want to celebrate the success and, to be honest, many folks covet the benefits and gains of success.

Leadership books are not written from the midst of the struggle–even though leadership is based on the art of struggle. These books are written after the point of success and the pain of the struggle is long passed. We look at these success stories but unfortunately we draw the wrong conclusions.

What are some of the wrong conclusions that we draw?

We conclude that a perfect leader exists. The myth of the perfect leader stands in our way. It does so because we know that we ourselves are not perfect. Therefore we cannot be successful leaders. This is a wrong conclusion. Successful leaders are not perfect. They are persistent. They get back on their feet one more time than the other guys.

We conclude that a leader did it all by themselves. Most narratives of success are written by the “succeeder.” And often times there is not sufficient praise given to the many folks who contributed to the success of any particular venture. This is a wrong conclusion. Many leaders have a great supporting cast that all too often go unnoticed.

We conclude that the elapsed time from start to success is short. Human nature is not patient. And we read success stories and compress the elapsed time in our minds. No one wants to consider that it may take a lifetime to build something into a successful venture. This is a wrong conclusion. Many times it takes a lifetime to build success. This is especially true when it comes to our role as leader in our homes.

We conclude that every successful entrepreneur is a great leader. We see a rich young entrepreneur and we call them successful. This is a wrong conclusion. Although entrepreneurs definitely face challenges and struggles, it doesn’t mean every entrepreneur is cut out to be a great leader. Many great entrepreneurs have the ability to innovate and create a great product or service. But they cannot sustain a company and often are forced to sell or bring on a real leader to lead the company forward.

What is the leadership lesson here?

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You can be a great leader and never be a success in the eyes of the world and the Wall Street Journal. Let that sink in. It certainly goes counter to today’s culture doesn’t it?

I believe we all have innate talents. I also realize different people have very different talents. What we must do is tap into the talents that are innately inside us. And we must commit to a life of learning, striving and, yes, struggling.

Many folks will say, “I’m just not a leader.” That’s unfortunate, because leadership is for the most part learned or developed.

If you open yourself up to the notion that leadership is primarily a learned skill, then you can reach your own potential as a leader. But that requires challenging yourself, and struggling along the way, so you can grow and learn.

Successful leaders see struggle as just another form of feedback.

Struggle helps keep us grounded, especially if we learn to see struggle as a learning opportunity. That way, when we get this feedback we won’t reject it. We won’t see criticism or critique as a threat. Instead we see it as insight into our struggle.

Inexperienced leaders often reject the feedback they get.  But every piece of feedback is a connection with the real world. When we dismiss feedback as irrelevant or view it as a personal attack, we miss out on an opportunity to learn and grow as a leader.

Successful leaders know how to take feedback and blend it with their own vision to create a more effective organization or an even better product or service.  Staying true to your beliefs and vision is important, but that makes it easy to develop blind spots.

But shouldn’t we all be making decisions based on experience?

Yes. Just make sure you understand two basic patterns of decision-making: The automatic pattern-matching mind and the reflective mind.

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The automatic mind sees similarities and reaches the conclusion that those similarities are what is most important. This tends to make us extremely confident in our decisions. But we have to step back and see the differences as well, and that’s where the reflective mind comes in. The reflective mind can see differences and provides a little dose of humility into the process.

When you reflect on your struggles, all sorts of wonderful things happen. You cease to be threatened by the feedback. Human nature makes it easy to respond defensively to feedback and even to be a little afraid to seek feedback. However, if you can get past the defensiveness and the fear you will open yourself up to new ways of looking at your struggles and to new possibilities for learning. You need to reinvent yourself as a leader based upon your struggles and experiences.

Leaders need to continually reinvent themselves so they can rise to the challenges they face in today’s fast paced marketplace. Reinvention starts with embracing our struggles and learning from the challenges and adversity that accompany the struggles.

What about you?  Are you learning from the feedback from your struggles?  Are reinventing yourself?

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I am the husband of a beautiful and wonderful woman. I am the father of two of the greatest kids on the planet. I am a father-in-law to a great young woman. And I am Papa to three very special grandchildren. In my spare time I am an active blogger and writer. And if there is any time left over, I work with small non-profit organizations and churches on the topics of change management, crisis intervention and leadership development.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • From reading accounts of others’ struggles, and failures I come to the conclusion that these events “sharpened” the iron so to speak. They made them better people, the product or service was improved, or advanced. Not in spite of adversity, but most likely because of it. We hear of “overnight” successes that take years to come to fruition. Like you said, we don’t like to hear of the long-term journey, just the rapid results.

    • Yeah, I am not sure we value words like adversity or struggle in today’s culture.