COMMENTARY: Leadership: Grasping the Struggle
"Once all struggle is grasped, miracles are possible." - Mao Zedong
To be sure, Chairman Mao is one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century, revered by many, cursed by some, the world power we see today as China stands on foundations he lay.
He leaned to poetry and philosophy as much as war and politics and it is from these gentler leanings that we have received this most potent aphorism: "Once all struggle is grasped, miracles are possible."
This may be held to be true in many endeavours but my interest here lies in its profundity in relation to great leadership.
While I am on the dichotomy of autarchs and angels, let me continue with the case of Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon was from Corsica, an island state conquered three months before his birth by France. He, of course, rose from this subjugated state to rule all of France. Remarkable, really.
Napoleonic scholars cite many struggles which prepared him for the miracle of his ascension to the apogee of military, political and economic leadership in Europe. But there was one experience in particular which many view as an inflection point for him, the nadir from which he sprung to unimaginable heights.
PBS describes the aftermath of his failed ambition to gain political power in Corsica: "Bonaparte no longer had the right to live in Corsica, he had been given a death sentence by his own people. His idealism was shaken ... The defeat in Corsica, the break from his hero Paoli had toughened him, made him shrewd and turned him toward France."
Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas in their 2002 Harvard Business Review article, 'Crucibles of Leadership', explore what they call a crucible experience and the role of that experience in creating outstanding leaders.
According to the authors, "A crucible is, by definition, a transformative experience through which an individual comes to a new or an altered sense of identity," and from this transformative experience they emerge stronger, more confident in themselves and their purpose, and more committed to their work. In other words, crucible experiences make better leaders.
As a leader, challenges will come; there seems to be no shortage of those, and they will come fast and furious, without regard for your strength of spirit or your strength of cash or your daily schedule, or without regard to any of the more convenient times in the future which they may present themselves, or better yet, not come at all. They will just show up uninvited with an air of their right to be there, and say to you, 'deal with me and grow or quiver and shrivel'.
DISPOSITION TO DISASTER
Disposition to disaster is more important than disaster itself. Great leaders don't just try to get by or survive their obstacles, they actively drain every pint of lesson and learning from them and add that to their arsenal. When they rise, they are better armed, better equipped, tougher, more formidable.
The mark of a leader is in the rising up. Bennis and Thomas put it this way: "Our recent research has led us to conclude that one of the most reliable indicators and predictors of true leadership is an individual's ability to find meaning in negative events and learn from even the most trying circumstances. Put another way, the skills required to conquer adversity and emerge stronger and more committed than ever are the same ones that make for extraordinary leaders."
This is not an easy thing to do, but I have found Jim Collins' observations a useful practice and recommendation. He notes in his article Level 5 Leadership, The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve the Stockdale Paradox:
"Named after Admiral James Stockdale, winner of the Medal of Honor, who survived seven years in a Vietcong POW camp by hanging on to two contradictory beliefs: His life could not be worse at the moment, and his life would someday be better than ever. Like Stockdale, people at the good-to-great companies in our research confronted the most brutal facts of their current reality, yet simultaneously maintained absolute faith that they would prevail in the end. And they held both disciplines - faith and fact - at the same time, all the time."
Do not be deceived by the outward trappings of leadership that you may aspire to: money, power influence, deference, and someone bringing you lunch on a platter and calling you Mr Leader. Understand that once you decide to do something extraordinary with your life, to test yourself, to see how good you are, how far you can go, you will be faced as much with serendipity as with calamity. To succeed, to achieve, to lead, those moments of disaster and despair must be used as a launching pad and not a headstone.
n Christian Stokes is founder and CEO of NCS Enterprises.