Leadership and the Art of Struggle: How Great Leaders Grow Through Challenge and Adversity

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Leadership is difficult--in our quest to teach leaders the secrets of success, we've somehow lost sight of this truth. Steven Snyder teaches leaders that leadership is a marathon, not a sprint; his book offers key strategies for navigating challenges.

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Chapter 1 Struggle Is Not a Four-Letter Word

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Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for
they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our
hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before—more
sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle
.

—Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

RITA MARSHALL’S TALENTS FOR CRAFTING GREAT PUBLIC RELAtions (PR) campaigns propelled her into a managerial position by the age of 30. Soon after arriving at her new company, she encountered her first leadership struggle.

Marshall was working as a PR professional in an advertising agency. The two disciplines—advertising and public relations—are very different, with dissimilar business models, nomenclatures, and rhythms for engaging with clients. Before she stepped into a formal leadership role, these differences, while minor annoyances, had not directly concerned her. With her new responsibilities, however, came new pressures. Now she had to find a way to make her company’s advertising-oriented policies relevant and meaningful to her PR team, all the while motivating them to achieve results. She found it especially challenging to be working with different players, customs, and rules.

 

Chapter 2 Adaptive Energy

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Okonkwo’s fear … was not external
but lay deep within himself
.

—Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

Even though Anne Mulcahy was unprepared for her role as president/COO of Xerox, at least she was able to draw from a long history of career success. For Kate Herzog the sudden demands of a daunting new role came early. Still untested, Herzog summoned every ounce of adaptive energy to meet and conquer her challenges with ingenuity and resourcefulness.

Herzog grew up in a small village in Ghana, West Africa. When she was a child, an anthropologist visited her village. Determined to learn how to speak and read English, Herzog saw her opportunity and persuaded the anthropologist to help. He gave her an anthology of the comic The Adventures of Tintin. Herzog would travel with Tintin and his dog Snowy to all the corners of the world. She told me: “Books opened many doors for me. They took me from my world in that tiny village to an entirely magical world. It made it okay for me to dream.”

Dreaming would pay off for Herzog. When she was 27, she found her way to the consulting division of Deloitte & Touche in Ghana, where she started as a business analyst, the lowest rung on the consulting ladder. Soon she noticed that she was not like the majority of her colleagues, who were educated at prestigious universities around the world. Herzog had never been outside Ghana.

 

Chapter 3 Turn Your Energy into Adaptive Energy

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It’s the chance of a lifetime
In a lifetime of chance
And it’s high time you joined
In the dance

—Dan Fogelberg, “Run for the Roses”

THE STORIES OF BILL GATES, STEVE JOBS, ANNE MULCAHY, RITA Marshall, and Kate Herzog have illustrated the key foundational concepts of leadership struggle: defining elements, scripts, adaptive energy, and the reflective and automatic minds. It is now time to put these concepts to work by intentionally building your capacity for adaptive action. The grounding practices in part I form the bedrock for regaining balance, getting your perspective in sync with the reality of what you are facing, and becoming more emotionally and spiritually centered.

The first grounding practice, which serves as the cornerstone for all the rest, encourages you to make a subtle yet powerful shift in your worldview, a step toward making your leadership journey more productive, fulfilling, and enjoyable.

GROUNDING PRACTICE

Consider two leaders who set out on a complex and difficult endeavor. Let’s call them FM and GM, for reasons that will become clear in a minute. FM and GM are equally matched with respect to their abilities and motivation, yet these two leaders approach a task very differently. FM, a cyclone of unfocused energy, does not learn from feedback opportunities and appears frenetic, chaotic, and haphazard overall. GM is more organized and systematic and carefully considers all feedback. FM’s counterproductive whirlwind is no match for GM’s logical and calibrated approach, and GM easily outperforms FM by a significant margin. What can account for such radical differences between two individuals so clearly matched?

 

Chapter 4 Make Sense of a Chaotic World

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What I need is perspective.… Otherwise you live
with your face squashed against a wall, everything
a huge foreground, of details, close-ups, hairs, the
weave of the bedsheet, the molecules of the face
.

—Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

“The world as it is,” as the Struggle Lens suggests, is chaotic indeed. Such chaos might leave a leader feeling flustered, out of balance, and out of control. Seeking to discern the specific tensions underlying a challenging situation is a good next step toward managing through the complexity. With a better understanding of how these tensions work, you will gain a clearer perspective and make better choices.

Not only is change at the heart of leadership struggle, it is also a source of the emotional and physical tension a leader feels as a result of that struggle. Joe Dowling’s story colorfully captures the multifaceted relationships among change, tension, and struggle. His cautionary tale also illustrates four tension points that grow out of struggle: tensions of tradition, tensions of aspiration, tensions of relationships, and tensions of identity.

 

Chapter 5 Regain Balance

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It is the obvious which is so difficult to see most of
the time. People say ‘It’s as plain as the nose on your
face.’ But how much of the nose on your face can you
see, unless someone holds a mirror up to you?

—Isaac Asimov, I, Robot

JOE DOWLING’S TURBULENT TENURE AT IRELAND’S ABBEY THEATRE is an excellent case study in how struggle can throw a leader off balance. The more that Dowling’s actions ratcheted up tensions, the further off balance he became and the more likely he was to act in ways that increased those tensions. Dowling’s situation was notable because, while he found himself at odds with the board of directors, at least he and the board were sitting at the same table, albeit uncomfortably.

Many leaders do not have the same luxury. An organizational agenda—and the priorities and the goals that support it—is often set by others with whom the leader’s relationship is distant at best. Depending on the culture and the hierarchy, power differentials may interfere with meaningful dialogue. In some cases it may appear that goals are set by a corporate machine that is detached, uncaring, and unaware of the “facts on the ground.”

 

Chapter 6 Navigate Tensions

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Got to be the worst place in the world, inside a oven.
You in here, you either cleaning or you getting cooked
.

—Kathryn Stockett, The Help

SANDY JONES, WHO HAD DREAMED OF BECOMING A CHIEF MERCHANT for a major retailer, emerged from her struggle to find herself on a different path that promised greater meaning and fulfillment. That was a very different struggle trajectory than the one followed by Kathee Tesija, who actually did become the chief merchant of one of the largest retailers in the world, Target Corporation.

Tesija became Target’s top merchant in May 2008, just as Target, a $70 billion retailer, was noticing early signs of a softening market. Those warning signals foreshadowed the most precipitous business downturn that Tesija would experience in her 25 years at Target.

In her new role, Tesija became responsible for envisioning solutions that fulfill their guests’ (Target’s term for customers) changing needs. Tesija told me, “We work hard at understanding what they want before they can articulate what they want.”

 

Chapter 7 Illuminate Blind Spots

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Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most
feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but
become transfigured into some still subtler form
.

—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

YEARS AGO, NOT LONG AFTER RECEIVING MY DRIVER’S LICENSE, I merged onto a freeway. Needing to move into the left lane, I flipped on my signal and glanced in the side-view mirror. I didn’t see any cars, so I started changing lanes. Suddenly, I was jolted by an angry horn. Whipping my head to my left, I saw a red-faced driver pounding his horn and yelling at me through closed windows. I had almost cut right in front of him.

He had been invisible to me because he was perfectly positioned in my blind spot, the precise area that my car mirrors couldn’t pick up. I had forgotten a critical lesson from driver’s education class: Always physically turn your head to look in your blind spot before you change lanes. Fortunately, the other driver’s quick reflexes averted an accident, but the incident shook me up so much that I vowed never again to be so lax behind the wheel.

 

Chapter 8 Transcend Conflict

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Every human being makes mistakes, but when
he has made a mistake, that man who remedies
the evil is no longer foolish and unhappy
.

—Sophocles, Antigone

Mike Berman was promoted to president of the Boston Scientific Corporation (BSC) Cardiology Division in the summer of 1995 at age 37, just as intracoronary stents were beginning to eclipse balloon catheters as the preferred treatment for certain forms of heart disease. BSC, while a leader in the interventional cardiology business, was behind the pack in stent technology. To leapfrog the competition, Berman fostered a relationship with an Israeli firm, Medinol, that had developed a promising yet untested stent technology. The companies signed a 10-year agreement in October 1995, calling for Medinol to supply the stents to BSC, which would use its distribution muscle to deliver the products worldwide. Berman explained his view of the partnership:

We thought our interests were aligned 100 percent, where they would make the stents, and we would take the stents and marry them to our product, package them, sterilize them, and then sell them around the world. So we built the delivery system; they built the stent. We married the two. And we were in charge of sales and marketing. I thought it would be a brilliant strategic move.

 

Chapter 9 Discover Purpose and Meaning through Struggle

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Even when you think you have your life all mapped
out, things happen that shape your destiny in
ways you might never have imagined
.

—Deepak Chopra, The Spontaneous Fulfillment of Desire

In the previous chapter, Mike Berman, president of Boston Scientific Corporation’s Cardiology Division, became concerned about escalating conflict with a business partner. Early on Berman concluded that the only way to solve the problem was for BSC to acquire the company, thereby completely aligning the business interests of the two parties. With the board’s blessing, Berman negotiated the acquisition deal, and a term sheet was signed by BSC’s CEO. At the last minute, BSC’s CFO intervened, nixing the deal.

When I asked Berman what he would have done differently if he had it to do over again, he pointed to this critical juncture. He wished that he had done more to win over the CFO to his point of view. He knew in his heart that an acquisition was the best path, yet he stood by and let the deal slip through his fingers, setting the stage for an ugly acceleration of tension and discord. Berman’s choice would define his leadership; instead of doing battle with the CFO, in the end he opted to be a team player and go along.

 

Chapter 10 Peer into the Future

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A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single mind
contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral
.

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Flight to Arras

THROUGHOUT HIS CAREER, RICHARD FEYNMAN, A CO-WINNER OF the 1965 Nobel Prize in physics, remained fascinated by a simple observation: No matter which medium a photon of light passes through, it always chooses the fastest path to arrive at its destination.

Consider the analogy of a lifeguard who spots someone in trouble 200 feet to her left and 100 feet from shore. Knowing she can run faster than she can swim, she sprints along the beach. Choosing just the right spot, she dives into the water and swims diagonally to make the rescue. There had been no time to think things through. Factoring in her destination, her swimming speed, and her running speed, she simply leveraged her intuition and experience to instantly map out the best route.

Okay, back to the photon. Somehow, in advance, the savvy photon “knows” its ultimate destination, “knows” which medium it will go through to get there, “knows” how fast it can travel in each medium (light travels faster in a vacuum than it does going through a denser medium like glass or water), and “calculates” the fastest way to move from point A to point B—even though it might be trillions of miles away.

 

Chapter 11 Savor the Marathon

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It was like hearing a piece of fabric woven with all
the colors of a rainbow. I did not know that such
beauty could be formed by the human mouth
.

—Anita Diamant, The Red Tent

“Leadership is a marathon, not a sprint,” an astute leader told me. Like long-distance runners who take in nourishment along the way, you need to continually nourish yourself, replenishing the energy you’ve lost and sustaining yourself through life’s difficulties, all the while continuing your path of growth and mastery. Here are two final suggestions to help you get the most out of your journey.

DEEPENING PRACTICE

Great leaders bring a high level of discipline to their roles and their lives. This discipline manifests in the form of habits—behavioral routines that play out over and over again. Typically, these routines produce some kind of reward of which you may or may not be fully conscious. The trick is to find just the right routine and just the right reward to transform your habits into a self-perpetuating adaptive engine.

 

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