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Why High Stress Breeds the Best Leaders

All the greats know one thing: Nothing prepares future business leaders better than learning to survive and thrive under adverse conditions.
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We tend to think of stress, competition, and adversity in a negative way. If you have no aspirations or happen to live in Utopia, you might get away with that. But if you want to go places in the real world, you'd better learn to embrace those concepts.

It's often said that successful executives and entrepreneurs thrive in highly competitive and high-stress environments. Indeed, they do. But they're successful because they learned to survive and thrive under adverse conditions, not the other way around. Nothing, and I mean nothing, will prepare you better to lead.

I was just reading an article that points out this interesting dichotomy. Working at technology companies like Apple, Amazon, and Intel can be highly demanding and stressful, but employees seem to thrive there.

In fact, many of those same companies are sited as great places to work. Young up-and-comers flock to them. Why? Because they know they're breeding grounds for the entrepreneurs and executives of tomorrow.

There's Truth in "Rags to Riches"

The cause and effect relationship between adversity and leadership doesn't start at work. Leaders often attribute their success to their upbringing or conditions where they grew up. New York City, for example, has spawned far more than its fair share of success stories.

Of 23 secondary schools that produced two or more Nobel laureates, nine are in the Big Apple. My high school in Brooklyn alone accounts for three Nobel Prize winners, not to mention dozens of famous executives, scientists, engineers, athletes, musicians, actors, and politicians.

Why? The ultracompetitive environment. Everybody was a character. We were always fighting for positions on sports teams, to stand out, or just to fit in. Also, we didn't grow up with much. If you wanted more out of life, you knew what you had to do. You really had to be tough. You had to be a winner.

Loads of successful executives and entrepreneurs started with nothing--except perhaps adversity. Starbucks founder and chief executive Howard Schultz grew up not far from where I did. So did Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankenfein's. His dad was a postal worker. So was mine.

Steve Jobs and Oracle founder and CEO Larry Ellison were both adopted by working class families. Former Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg started as a cable splicer's assistant right out of high school. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson's first job out of school was working in Southwestern Bell's Oklahoma IT department.

And this isn't just an American phenomenon, either. Masayoshi Son, the founder and CEO of Softbank and Japan's second richest man, grew up in an illegal shack in southwest Japan. His Korean parents used a Japanese surname to hide their heritage and avoid discrimination.

Embrace, Not Escape

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that, to be successful in this world, you have to have grown up dirt poor. I'm sure that plenty of top executives didn't have to fight for table scraps. But if you had spent as much time in boardrooms and start-up companies as I have, you would know how competitive and stressful it is. It's just one crazy problem after another. You're always making tough decisions under pressure and with too little information.

The truth of the matter is this. If you want to succeed in that environment, if you want to become a successful executive, entrepreneur, or business leader, then you need to embrace or at least learn to deal with stress, adversity, and competition. One thing's for sure. Avoiding it won't get you there. If you're looking for a stress-free work life, as they say in New York, fugetaboutit.

Last updated: Feb 12, 2013

STEVE TOBAK | Columnist

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, an executive coach, and a former senior executive of the technology industry. He's managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based strategy consulting firm. Contact Tobak; follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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