Steven Snyder, Leadership and the Art of Struggle

January 2013 / Leadership Emerging

leadership and the art of struggle coverSteven Snyder. Leadership and the Art of Struggle: How Great Leaders Grow through Challenge and Adversity. San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler Publishers, 2012.

With some reservations this book is an excellent approach to developing individuals for leader roles. First, the Foreword by Bill George is worth reading. In it you can see more of this self-reflective individual’s development that has led to an illustrious career in business, in academia and as an author. And George points right to one of the reservations that I will come to below when he quotes Snyder, “Great leaders use failure as a wake-up call.” As I pointed out in my now out of print book, 1 Phoenix Rising, failure is a great teacher. We are all in agreement about that. And the strength of this book is not on the traits of what we call “a leader,” but on the practices individuals can undertake to prepare themselves for a grounded, centered, learning-full life that may or may not involve stepping into a leader role.

George points out that when he left Medtronics to join Harvard in 2004 he undertook an intensive study to find the traits of individuals who are/were effective leaders. Nothing emerged that was definitive. Rather, like Warren Bennis, he identified the challenges and crucibles these individuals experienced that helped them learn about themselves and their relationships in the world so that they could be effective in making changes in their organizations and societies. Now George recognizes the importance for individuals to become grounded. As Snyder so cogently points out, this involves integrating a set of practices into one’s life that supports continued learning and development. It seems to me that, like Sam Harris, the approach to grounding that is being advocated is Mindfulness — a set of practices very much in harmony with those valued by “integralists,” such as those found in Integral Life Practice.

And there are others besides practicing awareness, getting exercise and consistently meditating. These practices or ones like them can be found is the best of our development programs for individuals, including those to prepare them for stepping into leader roles. For example, Synder proposes a self-reflection activity using a tension map, a four cell matrix involving relationships, identity, tradition and aspiration. He offers numerous questions to explore in relation to these for developing one’s own graphic pattern. With tradition, he asks, “What major changes are taking place in your industry or market?” With relationships he asks, “In what ways can you honor and respect the views of others without diminishing your own?” With aspiration he asks, “In what ways, if any, are the explicitly stated goals of the organization inconsistent with its values?” And with identity he offers, “What, if any, ethical or moral issues are causing you tension at work?” These are just samples. Lots more where they came from – in the book.

My reservation is a familiar one to readers of these reviews. Despite statements like this – “Everyone is at their own unique stage in the leadership continuum and in their mastery of the art of struggle.” – we still find statements like the following. “Great leaders use failure as a wake-up call.” So despite the progress demonstrated in this book in relation to individual development that may help them be effective in (temporary) leader roles, there is still an insistence on referring to individuals as leaders. What’s the problem with this? It perpetuates the myth of the leader. It continues to appeal to the egos of individuals who want to be thought of as nearer or at the top of some hierarchy of organization or of performance or of value. Snyder is almost there. And he is close enough to make this book well worth the read for a fresher perspective on developing individuals for leader roles.