Many leaders unconsciously categorize the word “struggle” as negative and off-putting, a taboo, which makes dealing with struggle even more difficult than it needs to be. This can become especially problematic when leaders find themselves facing significant challenges.
When external pressures for positive spin create dissonance with reality, leaders may ignore the incongruity they feel in their guts and stifle the candid conversations that could guide them forward. They may unconsciously compare themselves with others and allow this comparison to diminish their self-image and curb their potential. They may fall into the trap of thinking that leaders are supposed to be perfect or at least perfectly capable of dealing with struggle. Consequently, they can feel embarrassed and stigmatized, thinking, Something must be wrong with me. I’m not like all the other successful leaders out there.
But, of course, no leader is perfect. All human beings have their own unique flaws and frailties. And, of course, struggle is a natural part of leadership. Instead of denying struggle, or feeling some degree of shame, savvy leaders embrace struggle as an opportunity for growth and learning, as an art to be mastered. They come to see struggle as a universal rite of passage without allowing themselves to become mired in it.
Defining Elements of Leadership Struggle
Struggle occurs when a difficult or complex situation arises that presents some challenge or adversity. The details can vary considerably from beginning a new job or confronting a major disappointment to facing a difficult decision or managing an unexpected external event. But in all examples there are three fundamental conditions that determine the nature of the struggle and serve as its defining elements: change, tensions and being out of balance.
Change. Change stands at the heart of leadership struggle. Every struggle is triggered by some type of change. Change may be imposed on a leader by a new set of enterprise-related circumstances caused by loss of key personnel, financial constraints, competitive pressure or some other setback.
External change, whether desired or not, always carries with it seeds of opportunity and growth. The struggle may come from discerning the best way to take advantage of those opportunities or how to do so with limited resources.
In still other cases, change comes from deep within a leader’s inner world. As the heart and the mind expand to take in new ideas, feelings and perspectives, struggle comes from the process of clarifying newly emerging values and identity.
Tensions. The process of change creates a natural set of tensions, the second defining element of leadership struggle. Tension points stem from individual and institutional traditions (past) and aspirations (future) as well as (outward) relationships and (inward) identity.
Being out of balance. The third element of leadership struggle is that change and its ensuing tensions throw a leader off balance. Sometimes the imbalance is felt in subtle ways: a quiet voice, a nagging concern in the leader’s gut, or reluctance toward or procrastination of an important task. Sometimes the fears are deeper and the emotions are more powerful. A leader may lose confidence and feel the weight of the world on his or her shoulders.
Adaptive energy is the force that propels you to reach your dreams, pointing you toward the goal line and warning you when you veer off course. It aligns your actions both with the external criteria necessary for success and with your inner values and principles. Through adaptive energy you listen to and assess feedback from multiple sources and incorporate this new learning in future actions, all the while remaining true to yourself.
Harnessing adaptive energy can inspire you to come up with innovative ideas when no immediate solution is evident. It can also steer you to build lasting and fulfilling relationships. Even though your interactions might involve conflict, you gain the acuity and the agility to manage the conflict so that it does not stand in the way of what needs to be done.
Everyone has negative thoughts and bad moods, but leaders who can access their adaptive energy are able to channel their adverse emotions into creativity and goal-oriented pursuits.
All leaders have the potential to channel their energy in ways that are adaptive and aligned with their purpose. How they do that is the central question. As an art, leadership struggle cannot be reduced to a simple formula, but a key concept is this: The more self-aware you are, the more capable you will be of adaptively channeling your behavior. Leaders who wish to become more self-aware need to understand the nature of their automatic and reflective minds.
The Automatic and Reflective Minds
The automatic mind, the faster one, reaches judgments and conclusions quickly but often prematurely, making associations with information already stored and easily accessible. Many people intuitively call it “automatic pilot,” with the connotation that decisions are made routinely, out of habit, subject to pre-programmed routines.
The reflective mind is slower and more methodical. It is capable of reason, logic and meta-thought –– the process of consciously observing one’s own thought process, as if looking down on oneself from the balcony. It challenges assumptions, generates multiple alternatives and evaluates them systematically, and is capable of objective analysis. It is the spark for conscious and intentional action. But it tends to be lazy, often ceding control to the automatic mind, which can lead to regrettable consequences
Turn Your Energy Into Adaptive Energy
Consider two leaders who set out on a complex and difficult endeavor. Let’s call them FM and GM. FM and GM are equally matched with respect to their abilities and motivation, yet these two leaders approach a task very differently. FM, a cyclone of unfocused energy, does not learn from feedback opportunities and appears frenetic, chaotic and haphazard overall. GM is more organized and systematic and carefully considers all feedback. FM’s counterproductive whirlwind is no match for GM’s logical and calibrated approach, and GM easily outperforms FM by a significant margin. What can account for such radical differences?
It turns out that FM and GM were prototypical participants in a very clever psychological experiment. FM refers to those who approached the task with a fixed mindset –– the assumption that their abilities were innate and not subject to change. GM refers to those who approached the task with a growth mindset –– the belief that their ability level was nothing more than a snapshot in time and eminently changeable as they continued to learn and develop.
A Fixed Mindset
Psychologist Carol Dweck argues that conditioning, beginning at a very young age, implicitly imposes a fixed mindset. Virtually every adult has at some point told a youngster who did something well, “You are so smart!” According to Dweck, such messages build a belief that it is our inherent smartness that leads to good performance, not the effort that is exerted.
When things go well, we think it’s because of how smart we are. When things don’t turn out as we had hoped, we begin to doubt our ability. This mental model is a proven recipe for sub-optimal performance over the long term. It becomes especially problematic when individuals with a fixed mindset suffer a setback or make a mistake. They automatically associate their disappointing performance with an immutable deficit in abilities. This can diminish their confidence and spark an escalating spiral of negative emotion as they compare themselves unfavorably with others. More time spent in negative ideation means less time thinking about creative ways to improve performance. A Growth Mindset A leader with a growth mindset is consciously aware that ability is not innate and unchangeable but instead a malleable quality that can continuously be augmented
A Growth Mindset
A leader with a growth mindset is consciously aware that ability is not innate and unchangeable but instead a malleable quality that can continuously be augmented through practice and persistence. In a growth mindset, you pay conscious attention to cultivating abilities through continuous learning. You seek out new learning opportunities by pursuing challenging assignments instead of taking safer and easier routes. The first step in adopting a growth mindset is to pay attention to what’s going on around you and give the reflective mind a mandate to take control. You can begin simply by elevating your awareness