“Leadership and the Art of the Struggle: How Great Leaders Grow through Challenge and Adversity” (2013) by Steven Snyder.
“Leadership and the Art of the Struggle” has become my favorite book for providing encouragement through difficult situations. Though it has only been out for a few months, I have already recommended it to several of my peers, including entrepreneurs, professional speakers, and midlevel managers. If you are a leader in any capacity, then you know leadership is tough and tiring. Sometimes the sage advice of a leader who has been victorious on the battlefield of trials can be the perfect anecdote to adversity. That is exactly what leadership consultant Steven Snyder offers in this highly inspiring work.
Hailed as one of the “must-read” books of the year by leadership experts like Jim Kouzes, Ken Blanchard, and Marshall Goldsmith, Snyder presents a clarifying analysis of one of the most critical aspects of leadership: the challenge of struggle. He argues that the three main components of struggle are change, tensions, and being out of balance. Change is always difficult for people to accept. Even when the change is for the better, Snyder states that the struggle can be in discerning between opportunities or deciding how to allocate limited resources. In terms of tension, he categorizes four types of tension points, stemming from individual and institutional traditions and things of the past, aspirations or hopes for the future, outward relationships, and the internal conflict associated within identity. Lastly, a leader may experience struggle by being out of balance, resulting from change that he or she may not even knowingly be aware of.
In order to overcome struggle Snyder presents five grounding practices and fleshes them out with practical and reflective exercises. The author also uses examples from his personal story as well as other accounts of leaders who have successfully conquered personal and professional challenges. Included in the illumination of these skills are insights from the lives and work of people such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, and Rosa Parks. The five “Grounding Practices” are:
1.) Adopting a growth mind-set.
2.) Becoming resilient in the face of failure.
3.) Drawing your position on the tension map.
4.) Centering your mind, body, and spirit.
5.) Finding the support you need.
Though all five practices are essential, I’d like to highlight some aspects of the first, since I consider it to be the building block for the remaining four. In terms of a healthy foundation, Snyder declares that 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 new learning opportunities by pursuing challenging assignments instead of taking safer and easier routes” (p. 45). I agree that such a posture leads to lifelong learning and consequential improvement. The fifth discipline of finding support groups in relationship with others is an often overlooked mechanism for leadership care. Using the example of “True North Groups” developed by former CEO and author, Bill George (who also wrote the forward to “Leadership and the Art of the Struggle”), Snyder suggests seeking out mentors, and searching for people to help met your needs within your own network. Snyder states that “an integral part of the art of struggle is breaking out of old patterns and creating new habits to channel your energies in adaptive ways. Creating a community of people whom you can connect and bond with and from whom you can seek advice and feedback is a great way to get started” (p. 92).
One of my favorite aspects of this great book is the connection it makes between leadership and literature. In fact, Snyder comments in the Introduction how a former classmate of his named Joe Badaracco, taught a class at Harvard Business School on leadership through the examination of fictional characters in classic literary works. The argument of Badaracco and Snyder is that fictional writings deepen the understanding of leadership as prominently a human endeavor. The big breakthrough from Badaracco’s course at Harvard is that “leadership is a struggle by flawed human beings to make some important values real and effective in the world as it is” (p. 5). The literary theme continues throughout the book with chapter epigraphs from timeless stories such as Charles Dickens “Great Expectations”, Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”, and William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”. By really driving this point home, Snyder writes “who would have guessed that meeting great characters can help you build great character?” (p. 173).
Though tough and tiring as it may be, it is precisely the trials we go and grow through that define a leader’s character. Ultimately it isn’t the expectations or measurements that others impose which make leaders great, but the contribution that each leader makes to the bettering of society. Snyder concludes his work by affirming it is “how we find our unique path, tapping into our potential, becoming the best person we can possibly be. The art of the struggle lies not in achievements but in the ripples from the journey and how we’ve grown along the way-the lives we’ve touched, the kindness we’ve shown, the ways we’ve brought to life our most important values. It is the accumulation of all life’s choices, big and small, that creates our unique and personal gift to the world” (p. 180).
Since its release earlier this year, “Leadership and the Art of the Struggle” has been a book I have referred to time and again. Steven Snyder has done a great service for leaders by teaching how struggle is an inevitable ingredient for success and significance.