Former President Barack Obama reportedly kept a plaque on his desk that stated this short and incontrovertible fact: “Hard things are hard.”
In the stark light of the pandemic, episodes of social unrest, and challenging economic conditions in the world, this quote has triggered my thinking around the circumstances that forge great leaders.
In my experience, great leaders are made, not born. The genetic twists of fate that might give one person an accidental edge on an athletics track don’t hold the same power for those who would be our greatest business luminaries. To successfully lead any business, to enable it to withstand continuous change while balancing efficiency and innovation, to build diverse, inclusive, and psychologically safe teams and unleash their collective intelligence, all of this requires a very special set of skills.
A leader’s innate ability to do their job — the choices they will make, the perspectives they will work from, the judgments they’ll employ — will be a blend of the multitude of experiences they have had from birth to the boardroom. Some, like Fidelity Investments CEO and president Abigail Johnson (whose father built the company into a multi-billion-dollar behemoth), will have come from extreme wealth, and some, like former Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz, from a humble, working class background. Some will have had a prestigious education, while others will have dropped out and made their own way from their earliest years. For example, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson started his first business after dropping out of high school at age 15.
Clearly, the set of experiences that forms a leader’s most fundamental instincts is as unique to them as their own fingerprints, but formative experiences aren’t limited to childhood — they continue to shape a leader’s perspective throughout the entirety of their career. So what are the experiences that matter most? What are the conditions under which great leaders are uniquely forged?
For me, it’s relatively simple: What doesn’t knock you flat will propel you forward.
Great leaders acknowledge the emotional labor of their positions.
Trying, uncertain times inevitably create change, and leaders need to know how to keep their teams going without inflicting whiplash. To navigate change while at the same time maintaining integrity and effective communication is a talent that’s the preserve of a special few. It’s not a skill set you can obtain through a master’s degree, an MBA program, or any number of inspiring TED Talks — it needs to be forged in the fire of actually leading teams through these challenging circumstances.
While it has likely been tempting for leaders over the last tumultuous year to look enviously at our most celebrated technology companies, given their deep reserves of capital, resources, and sheer momentum, I will ask you to reframe that perspective.
Not because it isn’t an understandable sentiment. In countless areas of global business, leaders have taken a pandemic pummeling — from travel and tourism to entertainment, dining, retail, and many other sectors, the cataclysmic changes that have occurred as a result of the pandemic have asked things of leaders that the multitude weren’t prepared or adequately equipped for. From being confronted with eviscerated customer demand, suddenly unworkable business models, disrupted supply chains, and dispersed, unnerved workforces, the challenges experienced by leaders have been unique, incessant, and unyielding.
The winners in this scenario are not the ones who didn’t struggle. The winners are the ones who struggled and triumphed, because they will emerge from this crisis stronger, more adaptable, and more capable than ever before.
The widespread brush fires that were ignited throughout innumerable businesses and threatened to engulf them weren’t experienced in anything like the same way within many successful tech companies such as Netflix or Amazon (which experienced a boom as we stayed at home and, well, shopped and watched Netflix). Leaders in this group of companies have generally lived in a world where growth has been up and to the right for the last decade, and crisis fires seldom burn too hot. The downside is that their middle management won’t naturally forge the critical leadership skills that come as a result of staring down fires and, one by one, finding ways to put them out.
That’s not to say there aren’t lessons to learn or inspiration to draw from big tech. You just have to look back a little further. Companies like Netflix, Amazon, and Apple forged new paths and succeeded during times of economic downturn. In the early 1970s, as the U.S. entered a 16-month recession, two college dropouts — Bill Gates and Paul Allen — conceptualized home and office computing, catapulting Microsoft on its path to success.
Knowing what those companies have become today, I want you to think: What would have happened had these leaders given into hard times instead of seeing opportunity in adversity? And how many inspiring success stories have you heard that begin with someone working firmly inside their own comfort zone?
Now is the time to innovate.
The needs of the business community, the country, and entire world have shifted drastically, so how can your company pivot to meet new demands? What systems have shown themselves to be antiquated, unsustainable, or unreliable — and where is your window to disrupt them? These are the questions today’s leaders must ask themselves.
Another challenge will lie in finding the balance between innovation and efficiency: One enables us to compete today, the other allows us to keep competing tomorrow. In her pathbreaking book Radical Candor, CEO coach Kim Scott writes about entering the office of a newspaper executive whose industry seemed doomed only to find him staring dreamily out the window. What he was “daydreaming” about turned out to be an idea that would pivot the company for a decade.
Business leaders today must dream big and find the right mix for their unique organization. They need to identify what’s not working and burn it down, then replace it with something better. They also need to find what is working and set their minds on how to make it even better. Give your people latitude to make big mistakes, keeping a growth mindset. This is a time for action — but to know the right action to take, you’ll need to listen carefully to your people as well as your own instincts. And while you’re at it, show yourself compassion as well.
Working to maintain a high-performing and psychologically safe workforce while laying off 50 percent of the staff takes an extreme amount of empathy. Betting the last capital reserves on taking one path over another to meet a moving target market takes immense courage and fortitude. Pivoting to learn unfamiliar and untested systems when the old ones fail takes remarkable agility.
Each of these experiences, however challenging in the moment, are the building blocks of great leadership and, in the end, will make you better.
As difficult as it can feel to have systems you’ve relied on crumble around you, try to alter your viewpoint so that you see each new hurdle as a chance to sharpen your crisis management skills, each complication a catalyst, each obstacle an opportunity.
Yes, hard things are hard — but you can do hard things. The business hellscape many industries have faced down over the past year is the testing ground for the next generation of great leaders. Will you be one of them?