This article first appeared at Forbes.
Our concept of leadership is fundamentally flawed, says author and organizational consultant Steven Snyder. “There is myth…that it’s possible to be a perfect leader. We compare ourselves against an impossible standard, and when we fall short, we conclude that there is something wrong with us.” The truth, as he discovered in the course of researching his book Leadership and the Art of Struggle: How Great Leaders Grow Through Challenge and Adversity, is that “every leader faces intense difficulties at some point in their career.” The mark of a good leader isn’t avoiding trying times; that’s simply not realistic. Instead, “what differentiated extraordinary leaders was how they learned and grew from their ordeal.”
He cites as one example Pentair CEO Randy Hogan, who “learned that one of his key lieutenants had acted unethically. Even worse, he discovered that many within the company were aware of the unethical conduct and believed that Hogan had actually sanctioned it. Hogan was crushed. Of course he fired the individual. But he went further, apologizing to his employees, telling them he would rather lose in the ‘right’ way, than win in the ‘wrong’ way. ‘Winning right’ became a company mantra, allowing Hogan to break down old impediments to growth. During Hogan’s tenure, the company has significantly outperformed the S&P index.”
How did we fall into this myth of the perfect leader? For one thing, says Snyder, “Our culture tends to cast struggle in a negative light—a sign of weakness or incompetence. Thus, we are reluctant to talk openly about it, or even acknowledge it is going on. This taboo tends to be exacerbated in organizational settings, where there is an incessant drive for good news, and talking about difficulties is frowned upon.” Since we don’t hear about other leaders’ problems, we assume (erroneously) that they don’t have any.
For leaders who are willing to dive deep and embrace the art of struggle, says Snyder, “it all starts with adopting a growth mindset – the belief that our abilities are not fixed and innate, but rather acquired over time. Individuals in a growth mindset are poised for learning and growth because they see their challenges not as a measure of who they are today, but instead as an opportunity for future learning and growth…In the immortal words of my friend and former Microsoft CFO, Frank Gaudette, ‘I reserve the right to wake up smarter every day.’”
That mindset allows leaders to develop what Snyder calls “adaptive energy,” which enables you to harness “the resilience to pick yourself up when you fall down, [and] the agility to learn and discover new things.”
How are you building adaptive energy? What struggles have you overcome as a leader, and how did you do it?
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.