Hardship: A Different Kind of Challenge

This article was originally posted on the Experience Driven Leader Development blog.

Hardship is an important but often under-appreciated aspect of experience-driven leadership development.

Hardships are easy to overlook because they fall outside the well-known 70-20-10 framework of developmental experiences (Challenging Assignments – 70%, Other People – 20% and Coursework – 10%). They are not developmental experiences we ask for or recommend. They can be some of the most difficult periods of our personal and professional lives.

In the landmark The Lessons of Experience, CCL’s researchers distinguished hardships from challenging assignments. Commonly experienced hardships are:

  • Personal Traumas – Threats to the health and well-being of one’s self or family.
  • Career Setbacks – Often missed promotions, demotions or firings.
  • Changing Jobs – Risking one’s career to get out of a rut.
  • Business Mistakes – Failure resulting from bad judgment and poor decisions.
  • Subordinate Performance Problems – Often resulting in firing the employee.

With challenging assignments, the majority of learning comes from the success of meeting the challenge. With hardships, the learning comes from the lack of success. The lessons learned from challenging assignments are primarily external in nature (“What did I learn about handling my job and working with other people?”) while the lessons of hardship are mostly internal (“What did I learn about myself?”)

Because hardships force individuals to come face-to-face with themselves, they often experience a significant shift in their self-awareness and better appreciate what they can and can’t do successfully. Individuals often get a significant dose of humility that increases their compassion and sensitivity in dealing with others’ mistakes. Finally, surviving the hardship and willing themselves to move forward provides added strength to tackle new challenges and face future failures.

The lessons learned from hardships often have less to do with the events themselves and more with how individuals respond to them. Individuals who learn from hardship:

  • Resist the temptation to put the blame on the situation or other’s shortcomings.
  • Are able to step back from the situation to gain some clear-eyed perspective and recognize where their own mistakes and shortcomings contributed to the outcome.
  • Demonstrate resilience in moving beyond the pain of the hardship experience and committing themselves to do something about the personal limitations they had realized.

If you work closely with someone going through a hardship on or off the job, you can support them and encourage a learning response by:

  • Acknowledging to yourself that they are experiencing a traumatic situation and that coping with it and learning from it will require some time and effort on the individual’s part.
  • Looking for signs that the individual is either engaging in denial or, conversely, putting too much blame on themselves – in either case, seek the appropriate coaching and or counseling resources to help them cope and gain perspective.
  • Encouraging the individual to reflect on their experience and identify what lessons can be learned and how they might be applied – but choose your timing wisely. Wait until they are starting to come to terms with their hardship.
  • Resisting the temptation to tell the person “what they did wrong” and how they might improve – this may actually inhibit their self-awareness and spark defensiveness instead.

We seldom choose a hardship – hardship finds us. It is beyond our control. But we can control how we respond and how we frame it over time.

Hardship can push us to the brink and create a profound sense of loss and aloneness. And, if we let them, these dark moments can yield valuable and lasting lessons for becoming a better leader.

Do you have any examples of lessons you have learned from hardships in your past?

6 thoughts on “Hardship: A Different Kind of Challenge

  1. I remember well leaving a role after 3 months to accept a role with a greenfield start-up in the automotive industry. Leaving a role after 3 months in the early 1990’s was different that it is today, but it ended up changing my life and my career forever.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Dan. Starting a new job is indeed one of the most stressful experiences someone goes through in their career. Two new jobs in the space of three months takes it to a different level. Glad to hear that the risk and the challenge were worth it.

  2. Thanks for a great article. After experiencing a bushfire that decimated my town and affected the entire community I re-evaluated my life and started a leadership journey that continues today. This life changing event has changed me forever and given me the confidence to display my leadership.

    1. Thanks, Michelle. You’re comment about re-evaluating stuck with me. When hardships strike, they can have a way of pushing all other thoughts aside and allowing us to focus reflect deeply and clearly. From that reflection, great insight and great change can emerge.

  3. George , Perfect. I am printing this out for all of my psychotherapy clients , family members, the lady at the grocery store who regailed me with her multitude of hardships when she found out I was a psychotherapist and for myself when I forget to be grateful for the people , places and things that do NOT follow my directions — derailing my plan for my security . Thanks for affirming my entire spiritual framework. Ashely

    1. Thank you, Ashely. It is very rewarding to know that the message about how we can learn and grow from our hardships resonates so strongly with you. It is also gratifying to know that the message can have an even broader impact via your willingness to share it with others.

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