Struggle Makes for Stronger Leaders

The double-entendre of this cartoon in the Wall Street Journal really hooked me.

The salmon are swimming upstream, just as they are designed to do.

Yet it’s exhausting swimming against the flow — enough to question the effort, even when it’s the right thing to be doing. The salmon’s destiny lies upstream, not downstream.

Maybe this is the way life works for anyone who succeeds.

Our bodies grow stronger when we exercise, exerting energy against gravity (e.g., weightlifting, running). Without the stress of exertion against gravity, our bodies inevitably deteriorate. Astronauts manning the International Space Station need special equipment to simulate in space the gravity on Earth to keep their bodies strong.

Overcoming resistance begins at birth: There’s some evidence that a baby who is vaginally borne may benefit from the struggle of birth in ways that a C-section baby may not.

The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics says that everything in the universe is gradually winding down; orderly systems are inexorably moving toward disorder. Struggle seems to be a fundamental fact of life for all of us.

What does this mean for leaders who are seeking to sustain some sense of order in a complex world that’s changing at light speed?

As coaches, we at MEDI believe that leadership is the exercise of influence to co-create coordinated movement by a group of people toward a common purpose or goal. That influence flows through relationships, just like electricity flows through a wire. And co-creating coordinated movement with people always involves change, and change always invites struggle.

It turns out that “change leadership” isn’t a “thing” unto itself.  Leadership is change.

Like our friendly salmon in the cartoon: The choice to swim against the flow of the conventional wisdom, of “the way we’ve always done it,” is normative for an effective leader. There will be others who don’t see the need to change or are too afraid to challenge the status quo. Going with the flow is always easier. But the future lies upstream.

Hard times are the only way you increase your load-bearing capacity as a leader.

In his book, Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life, retired Navy Seal Eric Greitens writes about how people survive and thrive in spite of traumatic experiences:

“When people hear the word ‘resilience,’ they often think of ‘bouncing back’…. Life’s reality is that we cannot bounce back. We cannot bounce back because we cannot go back in time to the people we used to be…. Resilient people do not bounce back from hard experiences; they find healthy ways to integrate them into their lives [bounce forward].”

Lastly, it’s noteworthy that there are two salmon swimming together. Leaders need a trusted confidante at their side. Resilience grows best in relationship, not isolation. Who is that person in your life?

So take your experiences in these hard times as part of your ongoing training for more effective leadership. Don’t succumb to the temptation to go with the flow, because progress is always upstream.

Eric Norwood
About the author

Eric Norwood is a trusted, experienced advisor to C-Suite leaders, helping them improve their performance individually and corporately. He is a catalyst for change for his clients.

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