In recent articles , ‘what leads to leadership’ and ‘what do people think of leaders?’, I discussed key elements that may help capture the elusive nature of leadership. We all know it exists and we all experience it at some point. Some of us also feel the calling to invest ourselves in it. When one does, the development process comes with a number of learning tools such as training sessions, programs, books, coaching and, of course, experience. The latter is particularly important as leadership development usually involves a trial-and-error type of growth process and one’s leadership style emerges through it. In certain instances, leadership can also manifest itself more organically and spontaneously. It depends. But in general, it is during that growth phase that emerging leaders dream of transforming the world and successfully taking on challenges that will make a “big” difference. “Think big”, they say… It is true that leaders shaped history and often changed its course in the past. But is leadership only a matter of great achievements? Is leadership bound to be defined by success and amazing stories of heroism? Even though these success stories exist, perhaps there is more to it…
When we look at the success stories of great leaders, we tend to forget that they are often built on foundations stemming from the harsh reality of life. The difficulties and sometimes darker stories that great leaders have had to deal with in order to achieve something worthy of historical mention are often overlooked: Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, Nelson Mandela spent most of his adult life (27 years) coping in jail and Abraham Lincoln failed in business, suffered from a nervous breakdown and lost many elections before becoming one of the most prominent leadership figures in U.S. history.
It is fascinating to dig deeper into leadership stories and unpack the life paths that made them possible. And even when we do so, extra efforts are required to fully extract what they mean. Take for instance Nelson Mandela’s life journey: can we really imagine what it is like to live through each and every single day for 27 years in a South African jail? Hardly. We need to pause and try to imagine what it takes to endure such hardship over such an extended period of time and remain true to oneself. We can think about it, try to feel it but in the end, it is only by experiencing it that we would get the full measure of the challenge. Seeing someone like Nelson Mandela go through it all while remaining true to his values and commitment is inspiring. Such a demonstration of character when things go sideways, when the going gets tough or whenever it matters the most usually connect with people. Perhaps, that ingredient is critical to all kinds of leadership.
Staying true to oneself in the face of difficulties, to one’s core values, identity and commitment, is often referred to as resilience . Overcoming crises, hardships, bad treatment and other challenges that life can throw at us all while staying true to what we believe in strikes me as a foundational aspect of leadership. As Martin Luther King once said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenges and controversy.”. But is leadership limited to the few who can achieve great things after overcoming difficulties? Not at all and that is the point: most significant leadership contributions never make it to the history book if we agree that leadership is all about showing the way in a resilient manner. Of course, it is what great leaders such as Lincoln or Mandela have done. We know that. But it is also true of, say, a mother showing the way to her children all while dealing with hardship or of a healthcare professional showing up at work during the pandemic, regardless of the risks involved, in order to uphold an oath to helping patients.
There are innumerable leadership stories that we can all witness in our lifetime. Henry Kissinger once said that “the historic challenge for leaders is to manage the crisis while building the future”. It is true for leaders that make it to the historic book but it is also true for all of us in our lives. We all come across opportunities to show resilience in the face of difficulties in order to build the future and uphold foundational values to do so. In that sense, it may be said that difficulty is an opportunity. It is for each of us to make the choice to seize it or not. Nothing is perfect and we may fail at it. But it is also our choice to get back up on our feet and try again and again with resilience. In the end, true leadership is more often found in the way each and every one of us take on personal challenges.
Leadership through resilience is found in normal people displaying, through their actions, a commitment that transcends normal life and connects with something special; with something inspiring to others. It can be big things or it can be small things. But it is always made of the same fabric: resilient pursuit for what we believe in and what we believe ought to be done. Resilient potential is in all of us. It is for each of us to tap into it. And when we choose to do so, we connect with our leadership DNA. Do you agree that resilience is a key ingredient to leadership? Do you see other ingredients that are equally important to leadership? Write to me @ firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts. They are insightful and great fuel for future articles…
In the meantime, may you be well, may you be happy.