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Saturday, April 19, 2014

How Challenge and Adversity Can Actually Help Your Career 04-0

How Challenge and Adversity Can Actually Help Your Career

My grandfather, whose formal schooling never exceeded the third grade, was one of the wisest men I ever knew. Laboring from dark to dark on a Missouri farm as a boy and enduring the Great Depression as a young husband and father, he certainly had his share of hardship. But he knew how to keep tough times in perspective. He once told me “You don’t drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there.”
That sage advice can apply to anyone in any station in life. And it certainly applies to people in leadership positions.
Leadership, whether on the local school board or as head of a giant corporation, frequently has bumps and potholes in the road. Yet most of the “leadership literature” seems to glide past the hardship. And many leadersseem to prefer focusing on the triumphs, as though honest discussion of mistakes and misfortune would somehow make them look weak or lacking in confidence.
Steven Snyder, whose own experience ranges from working with Bill Gates in the early years at Microsoft  to serving as CEO of a publicly held company, is not at all shy about discussing how leadership’s downsides can contribution to the upsides. 
He’s author of Leadership and the Art of Struggle: How Great Leaders Grow Through Challenge and Adversity. The book is based on real-life stories drawn from extensive research into more than 150 diverse episodes of leadership struggle. The insights are relevant to any leader who’s determined to make lemonade out of a lemon.
Rodger Dean Duncan: In Leadership and the Art of Struggle, you write that challenge and adversity provide the crucible for greatness. Give us a couple of quick examples.
Steven Snyder: The true test of leadership is when things get really tough. Old strategies don’t work anymore, and you need to invent new ways to cope with the emerging realities.  We can only imagine what it must have been like to be Abraham Lincoln—the nation coming apart, brothers fighting brothers.  In the business world, the story of Anne Mulcahy stands out, when she took over leadership of XEROX as the company teetered on bankruptcy.
As I interviewed top leaders in my research, I asked them to tell me about the times when they faced their most intense challenge. They told me of the harrowing moments when they weren’t sure how things would turn out. One example is Kathee Tesija, who took over as chief merchant of Target TGT +0.15% in 2008, just as the nation entered the worst financial crisis in decades. Customer buying patterns changed abruptly and every merchandising decision had to be re-evaluated in real time. Like Lincoln and Mulcahy, Tesija rose to the occasion. Showing remarkable courage, all of these leaders navigated through their ordeals, their achievements eclipsing what would have been possible during “ordinary times.”
Duncan: Transforming pitfalls into possibilities is obviously more than just positive thinking. What’s the key?

Snyder: Psychologists have discovered that a very simple “bit flip” in your brain can make all the difference. They call this the “growth mindset.”  People who transform their problems into learning opportunities perform better because they are constantly looking for ways to improve their capabilities, throwing out old dysfunctional patterns and replacing them with habits more adaptive and aligned with current circumstances.
Duncan: What are the first couple of things a leader should do when confronted by a major problem or disappointment?
Snyder: Disappointments often throw leaders off-balance, filling them with rage or depression, disrupting physical well-being, and potentially undermining the very relationships that are so critical to success. It’s essential to recognize that you are off-balance and take proactive and intentional steps to get back into flow, that state of optimal human performance. Pause. Slow down. Breathe. Consciously enter a “growth mindset.” Meditate or get some exercise. Seek support from others. Strive to untangle the chaotic swirl going on around you. All of these actions will help you gain a fresh perspective, leading you to new discoveries and alternatives that were previously hidden or obscure.
Duncan: How can a leader learn to recognize and overcome counterproductive responses to adversity?
Snyder: It’s so easy to let ourselves remain on autopilot, and not notice what’s really going on. That’s why it’s essential to establish a discipline of centering practices such as meditation, exercise, and social support. Once these habits are ingrained into your daily and weekly routine, they become easier to tap when things go south. For example, if you have a good social support system, like a regular True North Group, your fellow group members will be able to give you honest feedback, perhaps giving you insight into how your behaviors may contribute to the problem. Once you turn off autopilot and listen carefully and attentively to feedback, you can begin to take conscious actions leading to change.
Duncan: How can the skills and behaviors you’ve described become part of an organization’s culture?
Snyder: Recently I attended a lecture by the Dalai Lama. He was asked the following question—“The problems of the world are so intractable, how can just one person make a difference?” In his reply, he reminded us that change starts with a single act by a single individual. For example, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, she became a catalyst for societal change that literally transformed racial attitudes in American society.
 It’s easy to sit back and let things continue the way they are. It takes courage and discipline to effect change, especially if you aren’t the one in charge. But when you do, people will notice, and your actions will have a cascading effect.

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