Book Recommendation: Leadership and the Art of Struggle by Steven Snyder

First-time author Steven Snyder has just published a remarkably deep and insightful book about how exceptional leaders learn from their struggles and their failures and have resilience to overcome adversity. Snyder takes many of the ideas from True North to a much deeper level with richer insights. He focuses on staying grounded, becoming resilient in the face of failure, making sense of a chaotic world, and illuminating your blind spots. Snyder demonstrates how you can discover your purpose and meaning through struggle and ultimately by deepening your adaptive energy in order to sustain your leadership throughout your life.

I had the privilege of writing the Foreword for this book. Here are some excerpts from the Foreword:

Do your struggles make you a better leader? Is it necessary to overcome severe challenges to become an outstanding leader? Yes, emphatically, says Steven Snyder in this remarkable book. “Clearly, struggle and leadership are intertwined,” he writes. “Great leaders use failure as a wake-up call.”

That’s a conclusion many would-be leaders are reluctant to accept. In today’s world, society often searches for perfect leaders. When their actions reveal their weaknesses and shortcomings, the general public turns away from them and continues the impossible search for perfection. Media pundits, eager to condemn our leaders, pile on the criticism. Like the two tramps in playwright Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” who are hoping for the savior to lead them out of their misery, the public is still searching for the perfect leader. Instead of stepping up to leadership themselves, many people continue to drift through life and fail to realize their full potential as human beings and as leaders.

In Leadership and the Art of Struggle, Snyder takes an entirely different tack. He believes, as I do, that failure is a great teacher. To learn from it, you must be prepared to face its painful realities and use failure as a learning experience. That’s what Steve Jobs did after getting fired from the company he founded. Had he not been forced to face his own shortcomings, he never could have returned to create the success that led Apple to become the most highly valued company of all time. The same is true of Oprah Winfrey, who had to face the pain of the sexual abuse she encountered as a young girl. When she did so, she changed her message to empowering people and became the most successful media star of her era.

In a room filled with 125 powerful large company CEOs, I once asked Jamie Dimon, JP Morgan’s chairman and CEO, what his defining experience was. Rather than citing his great success at JP Morgan, he replied instantly, “I got fired ... by my mentor of 22 years.” Learning from that experience, Dimon bounced back and become the world’s leading financial services CEO. Forced to face the reality of his bank’s $6 billion in trading losses, he took immediate responsibility. He went on “Meet the Press,” and said, "We made a terrible egregious mistake. We were stupid. There’s almost no excuse for it.”

The realities that Snyder addresses represent a fundamental building block required to develop healthy, effective leaders who are committed to building a society devoted to the well-being of all. Only in acknowledging our own flaws and vulnerabilities can we become authentic leaders who empower people to perform to the best of their abilities.

Shortly after joining the Harvard Business School faculty in 2004, I initiated a research project to determine the characteristics of authentic leaders and the ways they developed their leadership. My HBS colleagues encouraged me to discover the traits, characteristics and styles of these successful leaders. Then my HBS research associate presented me with discouraging news: 1,400 previous studies had been unsuccessful in determining these definitive characteristics, as all failed to establish statistical validity or replicability. Nevertheless, we went ahead with our project. Two skilled researchers and I interviewed 125 leaders ages 23 to 93, generating 3,000 pages of transcripts. To our disappointment, nothing definitive emerged about the leaders’ characteristics. Rather, many leaders said, “Let me just talk about what’s important to me.”

In reviewing the transcripts with our research team, I had a sickening feeling that the inputs might just turn out to be mush. But in rereading the deeply honest and personal stories these leaders told us about themselves, the conclusions literally jumped off the pages at us. It was the life stories of these leaders that shaped their leadership. Their challenging times and crucibles stoked their passion to make a difference through leading. Some of their failures – and nearly all had experienced setbacks and/or great hardships – had resulted from abandoning their roots and not staying grounded in who they were. We labeled these periods as “losing their way.” Others faced challenges not of their own making which nonetheless were life changing. Those who went on to greater success as leaders maintained fidelity to their life stories and who they were – their True North.

When we published these results in my 2007 book, True North, they had great resonance with business and non-profit leaders – from younger managers and middle managers up to senior executives. I was especially surprised that the ideas struck a vital chord with very powerful CEOs as they were so much at variance with what was being written and taught at the time.

Snyder’s book takes these same themes to a much deeper and richer level, as he pushes the limits much farther than I did.  He asserts that struggle is an “art to be mastered,” an intrinsic aspect of leadership and an opportunity for leaders to realize their potential. That runs directly contrary to the macho image cultivated by many powerful leaders who deny their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. With that denial, they rob themselves of opportunities for deep introspection and a clearer understanding of themselves. Small wonder that many high-level leaders feel like imposters. One Stanford professor has discovered that the number one fear of top leaders is “being found out.” Thus, it is not surprising that many leaders fail, most often because they cannot face reality and deny they are at risk of causing their own failures.

Snyder takes these fundamental truths of human nature and converts them into a set of well-conceived strategies and practices that enable leaders to become grounded – a phrase that I was too timid to use in True North in 2007 because it sounded soft. Of course, the real work of leaders of getting grounded in their authenticity, their humanity, and their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, as well as their strengths, is exceptionally hard work.

On a personal level, it took me many years to openly acknowledge my shortcomings, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. For that reason, I wound up withholding “the real me” from colleagues at work, coming across as super-confident, aggressive, and completely focused on business results. When I began sharing my weaknesses – being impatient, lacking tact, and often coming across as intimidating – as well as the failures and difficulties I had experienced in my lifetime, I learned that people opened up about themselves and resonated more with my leadership. I accepted that I wasn’t expected to have all the answers and could more frequently admit, “I don’t know.” In being willing to be vulnerable, I found I could acknowledge the fears of being rejected as a leader that went back to high school and college when I lost seven consecutive elections because others didn’t want to work with me.

For many years I tried to deny my weaknesses and blame them on my father, as if I inherited them from him. It didn’t work. When I finally acknowledged that these were my weaknesses, not his, and this was who I was, I felt the burden lifting from me. Only then could I feel comfortable in being myself. These shortcomings are still part of me, but they are far less prominent, and they no longer own me as they once did. As a result, my relations with colleagues, family members and friends have steadily improved.

In understanding how much more people were willing to trust me after that, I recognized that “vulnerability is power,” a favorite saying of author John Hope Bryant in Love Leadership. The paradox is that by acknowledging your vulnerabilities, you retain the power because others are unable to take advantage of you when you try to cover up your shortcomings and fears. At the same time you empower others to become more authentic by acknowledging their vulnerabilities.

In teaching these ideas to senior executives, I often get puzzled looks because they have steeled themselves not to reveal their vulnerabilities out of fear that others might take advantage of them. Of course, the truth is precisely the opposite. In refusing to acknowledge their roles in contributing to the problems around them, many leaders repeat their mistakes rather than learning from them. They may move to another job without ever facing themselves, thinking a fresh start will obviate their difficulties.

As mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn writes, “Wherever you go, there you are.” In other words, we can change venue but our shortcomings are with us until we acknowledge them to ourselves as well as others. When we do so, our weaknesses steadily diminish and our strengths become more powerful. That’s also the message of the positive psychology movement initiated by Dr. Martin Seligman, which is often falsely construed as burying your past difficulties rather than growing from them.

In this book, Snyder provides specific strategies to deal with these issues. He pairs his strategies with a series of techniques and exercises that enable us to stay grounded and explore new pathways to grow from our experiences. In the end he shows us how to develop the adaptive energy required to prepare for the greater challenges we will face in leadership. Through this rigorous process, we can develop the focus and discipline to work through our issues and, ultimately, to celebrate what really matters in our lives.

Having worked with many leaders who are earnestly embarking on the journey that Snyder takes us on, my advice is not to expect instant results. Being authentically self-aware and mindful of our feelings, emotions and reactions can take many years of hard work as we peel back the layers of that unique person we are. It often takes that much time to learn how to grasp the power we have within us to be the very best we can be.

This is a journey that can be difficult if not impossible to take on your own. We all need a team of fellow pilgrims to help us on the journey as we in turn help them along their paths. As the famous Hindu philosopher J. Krishnamurti wrote, “Relationship is the mirror through which we see ourselves as we really are.” How many people do you have truly open and enduring relationships with?  How many of them are willing to hold a mirror up to you?

We need a support team that helps us through the most challenging times of our lives. My team starts with my wife Penny, my faithful companion of 43 years, who has helped an engineer learn about psychology, human nature, and most importantly, myself. I have also learned a great deal from the wisdom of our two sons, Jeff and Jon, my close friends and my colleagues at Harvard Business School.

Other than Penny, nothing has been more constant and helpful than my two True North Groups – my men’s group that has met weekly for 39 years and our couple’s group that has met monthly for 30 years and travelled the world together. We have learned from our personal and professional challenges and helped each other along the way, through good times and especially in difficult times. Do you have a True North Group taking this remarkable journey with you?

Leadership and the Art of Struggle provides you the opportunity to learn from Steven Snyder’s remarkable wisdom and the experiences of his interviewees. It is also a living guide you can return to time after time when new situations arise. You may want to undertake this journey with your support team. That will give you the opportunity to share in each other’s struggles and gain the authenticity and the mastery that characterizes wise leaders.

By going through this process, you will feel more alive, energized and resilient than you ever believed was possible. You will become a better and more authentic leader, your relationships will become stronger and richer, and you will be able to accomplish more.

What more could you ask for in life?