It is often said that the greatest of leaders are not born, but rather made. It is through hardship that they must learn to exhibit strength and direction, blazing a path that translates a vision into a reality. Any goal that is worthwhile will inevitably present obstacles along the way. True leaders are able to overcome such challenges and grow from them, empowering their followers to do the same by means of action and example.
When we think of leaders, we are often considering them in light of their success, focusing only on the final product instead of the process. In other words, we think of their accomplishments more than the trials and tribulations they had to overcome. In taking a closer look at some notable leaders and the adversities they faced, we are able to identify certain qualities that demonstrate true leadership in turbulent times.
For instance, when we think of Bill Gates and his partner Paul Allen, the first thing that comes to mind is how they revolutionized the world of technology by introducing Microsoft, which remains one of the largest software companies globally. However, what many don’t know is that the success of Microsoft was preceded by the failure of Traf-O-Data– Gates and Allen’s first attempt at creating something worthwhile.
Bill Gates and Paul Allen exhibited true leadership by persevering in spite of initial failure.
True leaders don’t give up. In the face of fiasco, a true leader will consider the conditions or product at hand and determine what’s not working. They do not insist that a failed attempt can be successful without changing first something. Leaders recognize when it is time to go back to the drawing board and resolve underlying issues, and then they try again, turning their initial failure into a catalyst for motivation rather than discouragement.
In the same industry, we can learn a very different lesson of leadership as well. In his commencement address at Stanford University in 2005, Steve Jobs reflected on some of the lessons he learned from his upbringing and subsequent struggles. After growing up apart from his biological parents, experiencing college by sleeping on friends’ floors and walking 7 miles for a meal at temple, eventually dropping out of college, starting Apple from his parent’s garage, and even being kicked out of his own company at one point, Jobs could effectively look back in hindsight and evaluate how in spite of everything, he succeeded. Jobs remarked, “I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love… The only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
Steve Jobs demonstrated the importance of passion and nonconformity.
Leaders aren’t indifferent to the outcomes. In their every endeavor, they display passion and intentionality. True leaders do not settle. They may not always conform to what is expected of them, but they still find a way to achieve the desired outcome, understanding that drive is often rooted in passion, so we tend to work harder for the things we really care about.
Another influential person from which we can take leadership cues is Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor. No matter what one’s political alignments may be, one cannot deny the value of Sotomayor’s accomplishments when considering the totality of her upbringing. Not only is Sotomayor a first generation college graduate, but she is also the first and only Latina to have ever served on the U.S. Supreme Court. She grew up in a small apartment in the Bronx with her parents, who were both Puerto-Rican born and only spoke Spanish. At the age of 9, her father passed away due to a heart condition resulting from his alcoholism, and her mother worked long hours to make ends meet.
Sonia Sotomayor displays the possibility of success, against all odds, through her courage and goal-oriented mentality.
True leaders are unrelenting in their pursuits. They are not easily distracted, and they understand competition as fertile grounds for sowing motivation and diligence. Despite her humble upbringing, Sotomayor pioneered her way into the unknown and kept her eyes on the prize. Great leaders recognize that there are instances of inevitable disadvantage. They are not discouraged by these conditions, but rather accept the load of having to work harder to achieve the same outcome that may come easier to someone else. Leaders allow disadvantage to inspire discipline and drive.
Moreover, we can take lessons in leadership from Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai, who has been an advocate for female education and empowerment for many years. As a teenager, Malala was shot in the face by the Taliban on her way home from school. She reminds us that leaders stand for what is right, and continue to fight (even after they have achieved equity for themselves) until everyone reaches the same level of empowerment.
Malala Yousafzai shows the importance of leading with compassion and promoting empowerment.
There is a misconception that leaders always follow their head. While it is true that rationality and meticulous thought are important qualities, the best leaders are often those who are able to find a balance between head and heart. True leaders recognize the importance of empathy, and through that, they are able to cultivate solidarity and breed empowerment. They seek to inspire through understanding, and ultimately look out for every player on their team.
Each of these leaders has navigated through turbulent times. They come from all walks of life and ultimately exhibit that true leadership manifests in all shapes and sizes. These instances all make nice examples and good stories, but they are also a call to action. Every lesson that is outlined can be applied outside of its particular context, and translated into the language of business, reinforcing the notion that leadership is not merely a position of a title, but rather a manifestation of action and example.
When running a business, it is necessary to exhibit the qualities of a leader in spite of (or often in light of) turbulent times. When an idea isn’t working, leaders adapt, persevere, and try again. When a firm is doing okay, but could be doing significantly better, leaders do not settle for the relative mediocre. Instead, they strive for constant amelioration and work passionately towards that endeavor. When the numbers just aren’t in your favor, leaders focus on the goal and recalibrate their approach, understanding that sometimes it just takes more diligence and drive. When their employees are experiencing hardship, leaders exercise rational compassion. When morale in the office is low, true leaders empower.
When it comes to leadership, everyone has their own unique style. What matters most is that when hardship does arise, you should be prepared to lead your team through it. Visit our blog for more valuable lessons in leadership such as the six key traits the most respected leaders have and even leadership lessons we can take from birds to learn how you can be a better leader for your team.
By Fernando Ortiz-Barbachano
President and CEO of Barbachano International (BIP), the Human Capital Solutions leader in Mexico, Latin America, and the USA, offering high-impact executive search, executive coaching, and outplacement.
At Barbachano International, we understand the importance of recruiting and the return on investment that top talent can deliver for you. With 27 years in the industry, we know firsthand how imperative it is for an organization to have the right people to achieve its business objectives. We help you avoid painful hiring mistakes and reduce turnover by identifying top performers for your team that result in long-term success.
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