We’ve often heard the expression “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” An extension of this idea is that failure and obstacles are good things. Yet this thinking for the general populace doesn’t seem to apply to leaders.
When these concepts are applied to leadership it can take the form of a career requirement. Steven Snyder, author of Leadership and The Art of The Struggle, argues “struggle and leadership are intertwined…Great leaders use failure as a wake up call.”
Yet, our culture, and the media that propels it, favors promoting the image of a leader who is faultless, has made no mistakes and has a Teflon-like movie-star image. As Bill George argues, we quickly turn away from leaders who have made mistakes and the media tries to bury them.
Despite the substantial amount of psychological research and anecdotal evidence that demonstrates how failure and adversity can be of great benefit to leaders, we continue to insist on perfection.
Snyder argues that great leaders don’t use failure as a reason to blame others, don’t avoid responsibility or become victims, but rather, “seek out the counsel of a mentor and/or turn their attention inward for reflection and introspection.” He advances the following principles of his “Struggle Lens” that can guide leaders:
- Leadership is a struggle that provides a gateway to learning and growth;
- All human beings have flaws, including leaders;
- While accomplishing goals is important, human values must drive leaders;
- Leaders must accept the world as it is, not as they would like it to be, while still personally striving to make the world better.
Drawing on his experience of working with Bill Gates in the early days of Microsoft, and his knowledge of leaders in companies such as Apple Target and General Mills, Snyder proposes a framework for leaders to thrive in struggle: become grounded; explore new pathways and deepen adaptive strategy.
My experience in coaching high-level executives has led me to conclude that far too many of them suffer from either a narcissistic-like desire to be perfect, and always right and a reticence to admit mistakes or even see them as a necessary part of being a good leader. In many ways our culture, with its demand and expectation for perfect leaders has been responsible for recruiting and promoting these kinds of leaders, who in the end don’t serve their organizations, or society well.
Snyder’s book makes a significant contribution to realizing that struggles and failures make the best leaders.