Why Hardship Plays a Big Role in Building Powerful Leaders

We all have stories, why not use them to make a difference?

As a student of human behavior, especially the behaviors people present in the workplace, I am fascinated by the influential role hardship plays in shaping a person’s mindset and work styles. Repeatedly, I see people who have used hardship to their advantage to facilitate positive change while others use it as a crutch to limit or prohibit growth and learning.

Imagine how excited I was when a textbook I was reading to prepare for a rather significant designation exam I took in December included an entire section on the importance of hardship in forming effective and successful leaders.

According to the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), ‘four major groups of experiences were most beneficial to leadership development: key jobs, hardships, training, and important people’. Meaning, those that have made it far as leaders within their organizations, and have been tested to validate their experiences, demonstrate the above four experiences as those which shaped them, and ultimately, how successful they lead their teams.

I find this enormously fascinating, as I have always enjoyed hearing anecdotes from people I respect and admire about the challenges which shaped their professional progression. Almost always, they share stories of childhood, adolescent, and even adulthood adversities and hardships which they used to their advantage (instead of as a crutch to justify bad choices).

Furthermore, these very people have had negative influencers like toxic or unkind bosses, supervisors, etc. who left them with just as many positive learning experiences as negative memories.

As a professional who works in the leadership development arena, I have found myself leaning on the importance of celebrating (when possible and appropriate, of course) unpleasant and harsh life experiences because they leave us with so much knowledge. Encouraging my clients and peers to reflect (note: not dwell) on particularly memorable adversity or hardship experiences has, historically, been a very useful tool. And as a professional who values ‘putting her money where her mouth is’ I also reflect on past experiences and how they have shaped me as a professional.

For example, in my very early years of yoga instruction – well before I had my own facility, and only weeks after completing my apprenticeship and formal training – I worked at a studio where the owner regularly diminished his new hires.

One particularly vivid memory is coming out of a class and mingling with students who were excited to compliment me. My boss at the time, who overheard the exchanges, quickly entered himself into the conversation to tell the students that ‘You may want to consider taking classes from my other, more senior, instructors as Pubali has a long way to go.’

Even at that time, at the ripe age of 23, I knew that if I ever managed or employed people, that this type of communication was hurtful and would reflect poorly on me and my business. I let the unkind words of this person roll of my back, but I didn’t let the Aha! moment ever leave my mind.

To this day, after 17 years, I remain convinced that the above behaviors (or others like it) are a strong indicator that a manager, leader, or even a company’s culture, requires critical intervention. Left uncorrected, the damage can be considerable.

I have no doubt that most – if not all – of today’s professionals can recall a time in their career when they endured hardship. Many of you, reading my yoga class story, may recall many similar experiences. The question that I pose here, today, is How do you take these negative experiences and turn them into a positive one?

Earlier I shared that my work includes instructing, teaching, and training others on leadership fundamentals. Through a combination of the messaging I offer in my work, along with learning I have personally acquired through experience and excellent teachers, allow me to share a few kernels of advice on using hardship as a catalyst for positive change:

  1. Have a clear idea of precisely how you want to leverage your personal hardship experience(s). Sharing sad stories for the sake of sad stories is not a good usage of anyone’s time. Before you tell a tale, ask yourself what you want to teach or learn. Be clear to yourself and others what your takeaway was and why. Finally, be able to point at real, factual, examples of how you have grown or benefited from a past hardship.
  2. Hardship should be used exclusively in a future-focused format, and not something that is dwelled or fixated on. In other words, if you have a story to tell, share the experience and shift quickly to what you learned from it. Especially when interacting with peers and direct reports. Deep, in the weeds, recollections can quickly derail good intentions and push dialogue into dark and depressing territory.
  3. Take ownership of the part you may have played in a time of hardship. Introspection is key here. What we experienced in the past as hardship may have been partially caused by us, and it’s important to acknowledge this and/or share this with people who will benefit from your story. The worst is when a hardship-turned-success story is one where there is a great deal of blame laying and finger pointing.
  4. Use humor and levity whenever possible. Listen, I understand that hardship is no laughing matter. Depending on your story, there may be very little to laugh or joke about. That said, if we want to use a story to help and motivate, we need to make sure we focus on the positive outcomes and not distract ourselves (and others) with the negative. If, at the end of a discussion, all people remember is the traumatic elements, then we have obviously emphasized the wrong thing.
  5. Do not diminish or minimize the hardship stories of others. Often, we hear someone share a tale of hardship that makes us roll our eyes. We must remember that people define ‘hard’ very differently based on their life experiences, culture, financial backgrounds, etc. If your story involves a building which burned to the ground and your peer’s story involves having to sit in coach instead of first class, well…we still must respect the story. When you share, so will others – stay positive and focus on the teaching moment.
  6. Do not use hardship as an excuse. The famous, ‘You don’t get new shoes because when I was a kid, I had to walk uphill both ways, barefoot, in the snow’ joke exists for a reason. People often fall into the trap of wanting others to suffer because they did. One thing that National Public Radio has taught me is that everyone has a story (Story Corps, anyone?). So, by wanting others to suffer like you did only builds resentment. Enabling others’ success builds relationships.

Now, it is of critical importance to me to be clear on something: many experiences of hardship and trauma are so serious and so significant that using the story advantageously – or even sharing it – simply cannot and should not be done. In this piece I am simply sharing facts about the role of hardship in leadership development, and, that most of us have stories which we can use to our advantage (if we are not already). You are the best judge of whether your personal experiences are shareable and usable.

My new “North Star”, my Society for Human Resource Management Book of Competencies and Knowledge (SHRM BoCK), shares content related to hardship which I am compelled to close with:

It references a book titled, Geeks and Geezers: How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders where the authors Bennis and Thomas write, ‘We found that every leader had undergone at least one intense, transformational experience…a crucible…that was at the heart of becoming a leader.” The SHRM-BoCK goes on to say, “It appears that enduring high-pressure, emotionally charged experiences in which there is a lot at stake is conducive to leadership development.”

As always, I welcome hearing your stories and feedback. Share feedback below, or, email me at pubali@h-rpartners.com.

Pubali Chakravorty-Campbell, SHRM-SCP is Chief Executive Officer of Human Resource Partners. To learn about how to become an Employer of Choice visit: h-rpartners.com or call 603-749-8989.