Pain touches everyone. No one is exempt from hardship. If you are lucky, the toughest times in your life will be fleeting.
Hardships, of course, are not asked for and are usually not welcomed. They are not something you would plan into your development in the coming year. Yet, hardships are among the most powerful teachers. They can be mined for leadership lessons that stay with you forever.
CCL has a long history of studying the leadership lessons people learn and how they learn them. The body of work — called the Lessons of Experience research — has been conducted over 4 decades across 40 countries. In the research, most hardships fall into 4 categories:
- Career Setbacks. You experienced an unforeseen and unwanted block to your career progression, caused by another person or event, such as being fired, passed over for promotion, or being placed in a job that was a poor fit.
- Crisis. You experienced an unexpected, shocking event that you could not fully control and that caused feelings of confusion or loss. Examples include a product recall, a personal scandal, a natural disaster, or a health epidemic.
- Ethical Dilemmas. You observed fraudulent, illegal, or immoral behavior by a senior leader that was endured by a lower-level manager or directed toward you.
- Mistakes. You experienced an error of judgment by a manager or by co-workers that resulted in a team’s or the organization’s failure to meet its goals. Such mistakes can be technical, professional, ethical, or strategic — for example, a product malfunction, a poor hiring decision, a loss of credibility, or a collapsed venture.
With challenging assignments — such as taking on a new role or difficult assignment — the majority of learning comes from the success of meeting the challenge. With hardships, the learning comes from the lack of success. These lessons can bring unexpected gifts.
- Greater insight or clarity about what makes you tick is Gift #1. Hardships force you to come face-to-face with who you are. The experience of hardship often reveals limitations, patterns, beliefs and skills you didn’t see or appreciate before. This shift in self-awareness is powerful. You have the chance to make new choices based on what matters; how you act, think and feel; and what you can and cannot do.
- Increased compassion for others is Gift #2. A significant dose of humility usually comes with hardship. It is never easy to confront the truth that you are not perfect, invincible or immune to tough and terrible things. But going through hardship can open your eyes to the hardships of others. Receiving support and help from others may motivate you to give support and help more readily. Your sense of compassion can grow.
- Resilience is Gift #3. Surviving hardship and willing yourself to move forward builds added strength to tackle new challenges and face future failures. Resilience allows you to be flexible and durable as things change. It teaches you to be open to learning and agile as you figure out what to do next.
When you are in the middle of a really tough time, these gifts may seem far away or irrelevant — but they are valuable. Here are a few ideas to help you learn through hardship:
- Don’t let the hardship be everything. Rest, exercise and take care of yourself as best you can. Spend time with people who make you laugh and do things that get your mind off your troubles. Recovery time — even if in small amounts — is essential for learning.
- Don’t be ashamed of failures or mistakes or struggles. To learn, you need to reflect on the experience. Plus, reluctance to talk to others or get support can make your hardship that much harder.
- Avoid defensiveness. Try not to react defensively when other people give you feedback or point out things you are (or are not) doing. Denying problems or shifting blame away from yourself will not serve you in the long run.
- Keep asking questions. How might this hardship be a new challenge? What might I learn as a result? How might lessons from past experiences apply? How am I feeling? What is my intuition telling me? What are my actions telling me about what’s working and what’s not working? What can I learn from what I and others did in this situation? What feedback do I need to seek from others? How might this help me going forward?
- Look back to find your lessons of experience. Hardships are not the main way people learn — but experience is the primary teacher. CCL’s Lessons of Experience research has found that 5 types of experience teach about 55% of all leadership lessons: bosses and supervisors, turnarounds, increases in job scope, horizontal moves and new initiatives. Take time to think about the experiences in your own life — hardships and all the others — a way to learn, build resilience and even plan next steps. Consider using our Experience Explorer activity for yourself and others.
Hardship is painful. But if you can learn from it, you gain something back.