Let’s get this out of the way: Yours is an unpopular stance. Societally we think struggle is a negative. There’s a cultural stigma attached to it.
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. Leadership books are not written from the vantage point of struggle--even though leadership is based on the art of struggle. We look for success stories but unfortunately we draw the wrong conclusions.
Like what? For one, we have this myth that this perfect leader exists. The myth of the perfect leader stands in our way.
When we realize we all have foibles--even the Gates and Jobs of the world have them--we start to ease up on ourselves a lot. When times get tough we’re a lot less likely to quit because we expect times to get tough. We know that times get tough for everyone.
Every entrepreneur definitely faces challenges and struggles but that doesn’t mean every entrepreneur is cut out to be a great leader.
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 but also recognize we are incredible learning machines.
Many entrepreneurs say, “I’m just not a leader.” That’s unfortunate, because leadership is for the most part learned.
If you open yourself up to the notion that leadership is primarily a learned skill, then you can reach our own potential as a leader. But that requires challenging yourself, and struggling along the way, so you can grow and learn.
You also see struggle as just another form of feedback. The classic view of an entrepreneur is a person with incredible dreams. That’s a wonderful attribute--but you also have to be connected with the real world. That’s where entrepreneurs very often fail.
A former director of my company said an entrepreneur has to be schizophrenic: see all the positives but also be capable of seeing the world as it really is. The key is to accept the world but also yearn to change the world.
Struggle helps keep you grounded, especially if you see struggle as a learning opportunity. That way, when you get feedback you won’t reject it. You won’t see criticism or critique as a threat.
Entrepreneurs often reject the feedback they get, but every piece of feedback is a connection with the real world. When you dismiss feedback as irrelevant, you miss out on an opportunity.
Successful entrepreneurs know how to take feedback and blend it with their vision to create an even better product, service, etc.
We also have this archetype of the entrepreneur who stuck to his guns, but I’m not sure that ever tells the whole story. Staying true to your beliefs and vision is important, but that makes it easy to develop blind spots.
One is the experience blind spot, where past success actually blinds us to a current reality. A great example is Ron Johnson when he went from Apple to JC Penney. Indiscriminately transporting strategies that worked well in the past into your current situation without seeing the nuance differences can be a recipe for disaster. When he was asked, “Why don’t you test your pricing strategy before rolling it out to 1,000 stores?” he said, “We didn’t test at Apple.”
The feedback he got was, “Maybe this isn’t a good idea. Maybe this isn’t Apple.” That feedback could have been valuable because it might have opened up a pathway. Maybe he could have tested his pricing strategy--and maybe five others--to determine which was best. He closed himself to the feedback because of an experience blind spot.
But we all make decisions based on experience. True. Just make sure you understand two basic patterns: The automatic pattern-matching mind and the reflective mind.
The automatic mind sees similarities, reaches the conclusion that those similarities are what is most important, and makes 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, importantly, provides a dose of humility.
When you reflect, all sorts of wonderful things happen. You aren’t threatened by feedback. It’s easy to respond defensively to feedback, and even to be a little afraid of feedback. (“Hey, maybe they’re right and I’m wrong.”) If you can get past the defensiveness and fear open yourself up to new reflections and new possibilities. You open yourself up to reinvention.
Take Bill Gates when he reinvented his model of leadership. For a long time Microsoft had a functional organization where generally speaking every software engineer reported to a more capable software engineer. A decade later Bill realized that organizational model, no matter how successful early on, would not be successful going forward. He realized what had worked in the past was not the best model for the future. He got out of an experience blind spot and changed change his model of what successful leadership is all about.
Entrepreneurs need to continually reinvent themselves so they can rise up to the challenges they face. Reinvention starts with embracing struggle and learning from challenge and adversity.
A colleague of mine says he reserves the right to wake up smarter every day. Embrace struggle and you definitely will.
JEFF HADEN learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business. @jeff_haden