“The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth.” – Joseph Campbell – The Hero with a Thousand Faces
One of the best pieces of leadership advice I ever received was “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.” It’s good advice to be sure, but not exactly easy advice to follow. Faced with uncertainty, many leaders instead put their energy into doing it all themselves (“only I can do it ”), micro-managing (“you’ll only do it right if I watch you like a hawk”), or daily fire-fighting (“is there ever going to be a day when things slow down?”). Avoidance is a very common, very natural, and very human approach – leaders may find these paths frustrating, but at least they get the reward of avoiding the awkward stuff, right? But avoiding the struggle of leadership robs these leaders of the very thing that strengthens them as leaders: wisdom and growth.
In his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things, business leader, venture capitalist and author, Ben Horowitz, tells aspiring leaders to “embrace the struggle.” Horowitz has worked with a lot of CEOs, and he says they tend to fall into one of two categories: 1) those who fight the struggle of leadership, and 2) those who embrace it. This distinction turns out to be very useful: CEOs who “embraced the struggle” were found to be much more successful than their counterparts. They seemed to handle stress better, they were more likely to keep a positive spirit, and they tended to synthesize information more effectively. In combination, this led reliably to stronger performance.
Of course, this isn’t a new concept – growth through adversity has stood the test of time. Ancient Greeks like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Plato recognized that suffering is transformative. Struggle leads to humility, and humility makes you re-check your assumptions, explore new approaches, and learn from past experiences (i.e., wisdom) – all of which help you overcome obstacles and grow, mentally and spiritually. And if the idea that leadership is a form of suffering is surprising to you, just ask any serial entrepreneur or C-level executive whether there was suffering and struggle on their journey to build and manage a company.
Another modern example comes from Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School of Management, and his book, The Opposable Mind. The advice he shared was so valuable that it was also embraced by the renowned design firm IDEO, with their human-centric approach to innovation. In IDEO’s Design Thinking process, participants move repeatedly between “Inspiration” to “Ideation” to surface and refine truly innovative ideas. But the experience is messy – so many ideas cycling back and forth can be disorienting, frustrating and positively aggravating for those who crave order. Participants are told to expect this part of the experience – feeling stuck and annoyed is a sign that the process is working. When they “embrace” the messiness, it not only keeps them immersed in the process, but it also helps them synthesize disparate data to make connections they might not otherwise make. In other words, embracing the struggle moves you from the position of someone who looks, to someone who sees.
Authentic leadership is always a challenge. Volatile markets, uncertain outcomes, complex situations and ambiguous conditions can make
Ryan Osmond is the VP of Strategy and Marketing at JERA Partnerships. Ryan held senior leadership positions at HNW, Inc., a New York City-based, marketing agency serving businesses engaged with high-net-worth individuals and families. His executive leadership continued after transitioning to Otter Products, assuming the role of Global Senior Director of Product Portfolio for the OtterBox and LifeProof brands. He is the Co-Founder of Rylentless, a firm helping clients embrace the power of story to create stronger relationships with customers and employees.