How Hardship Creates Leaders

I’ve been working with a group of young leaders lately. One was talking about his background – high-achieving, top schools, good grades, an early career in a prestigious company filled with other top performers from fancy schools. This leader was frustrated to now be working in a company where, as he put it, “average” performers were the norm.


Looking at this leader’s perspective from where I sit, older and having endured many hiccups and setbacks on life’s journey, I am bemused by the young leader’s notion that being on top of the world is sustainable – and even desirable. Yet I also understand it. We’re all socialized to think un-interrupted achievement (which we call “success”) is good and setbacks (which we call “failure”) are bad.


The blogger Art Petty told a story about two job candidates. One had a “spotless record of achievement.” The other’s career included several times when “things went wrong” – a start-up failure, periods of underemployment (related to personal life responsibilities), interspersed with periods of rapid growth in leadership roles.   He posed the question, whom would you hire?


The value of challenges and setbacks

Many years ago, I was involved in research at the Center for Creative Leadership, about key events in the careers of successful managers and what they learned from these events. One important type of event was life crisis. These crises, such as a serious health challenge or divorce, provoked a fundamental re-thinking of what was important in the manager’s life, and caused them to place added priority on their personal life.


These findings are echoed by the emerging field of “positive psychology.” Writers in this field describe the phenomenon of “post-traumatic growth” – growth that occurs when insights from surviving a trauma challenge one’s pre-existing assumptions.


The research describes three major effects of post-traumatic growth:

  • From surviving the trauma, you discover new strengths and abilities, which shifts your self-concept and increases your confidence to face future challenges.
  • You place increased value on good relationships, and you learn what kinds of relationships are truly good.
  • Recognizing that life is a gift and that all you have is the present, you shift priorities, live for the moment, and decide that connectedness matters more than money or achievement.


Ti return to the case of my young leader, with hardships one comes to appreciate that life is imperfect, and that perfection is superficial, transitory, and even quite limiting.


How setbacks contribute to wise leadership

It’s not hard to think about the implications of these ideas for leadership effectiveness. What would a leader be like, who has experienced life’s challenges and setbacks?


In a now-classic article, Abraham Zaleznik described the “twice-born” leader – a person whose character is formed through coping with the trials of life circumstances. These individuals are stronger leaders because they are no longer dependent on how others perceive their decisions and actions.


And Bernard Bass found that charismatic, transformational leaders often have hardships in their histories –  and that learning to overcome these hardships actually contributes to this capability.


Your organization is going to face crisis and challenges. Who is best equipped to handle, and overcome, such a situation?  To go back to Petty’s scenario, whom would YOU hire?


However … not all people benefit from crisis. It’s almost inevitable that you’re going to experience setbacks. How can you survive, persevere, and even thrive in the face of those setbacks?


How can you benefit from crisis?

The most positive effects of crisis are linked with personality traits such as extraversion and optimism. But, even if these don’t come naturally to you, you can build coping strategies that mimic the effects of these traits.


  • Reach out for support – even if you feel like holing up alone.
  • Notice and change your self-talk. If you’re focused on what’s awful about your situation, shift the focus on your ability to get through it.
  • Don’t get too attached to outcomes. If you think you should be entitled to a smooth life with no setbacks, then any variation from that picture will be intensely disappointing … and it’s pretty inevitable that reality will eventually depart from that picture.
  • Recognize that YOU choose how you will make meaning of the events that occur.
  • Relish the joy of life’s imperfections.

View Joan Kofodimos's LinkedIn profileView Joan Kofodimos’s profile


About Joan