21 Jul 2016 20:33 IST

The leader gym

The difficult things we go through in life may not be enjoyable, but they help us grow

‘Life is difficult’ — Dr Scott Peck begins his book The Road Less Travelled with this line, which is one of my favourites; simple, direct, hard-hitting truth.

He goes on to write that most of us believe life should be easy. Therefore, we spend a lot of time, effort, energy and resources trying to wrench life to be that way. Then, when we find that it stays difficult, we end up being stressed, frustrated and anxious.

Instead, he says, when we accept the fact that life is difficult, we transcend that reality. We don’t try to fight life; we harness it for the growth it enables in us and the discipline it teaches us.

Stress takes lives

Recently, we heard the tragic news of suicides at IIT Chennai. Unfortunately, they are not isolated incidents. A class 9 boy from a Bangalore school jumped to his death, unable to cope with the bullying of some of the boys in his school.

According to a recent World Health Organization report, India has the highest suicide rate in the world in the age group of 15-29. In 2013 alone, 2,471 suicides were ascribed to “failure in examination”. In each case, some type of difficulty forced these young people to take the extreme step.

This trend continues into adulthood. The COO of Encyclopaedia Britannica jumped to his death, leaving a tragic note behind. “I am unable to cope. I am sorry. I am depressed. I see no way out except for suicide. Yes, I am a coward. I should have faced life.”

In the work world where stress levels have increased, leaders and their teams struggle to balance their work and lives. Which is why it is necessary that a leader come to terms with the fact that life isn’t easy. He/she needs to build this quality not just to face difficult situations but also help her team and organisation navigate through them, so they emerge stronger.

But most people choose to avoid facing problems.

~ Procrastination

One approach people adopt in a difficult situation is postponing dealing with it. It could be studying for the most difficult subject, putting off a compliance review or addressing the root cause of a quality issue because it might hamper production.

Often, people fear failure when they deal with difficulties. It tempts them to procrastinate. They imagine that the problem will go away if they ignore it long enough. But in reality, the reverse is true.

The longer we delay handling a problem, the worse it gets. One quote I’ve always used to encourage myself is, “If you push away the kitten today, when you look at it tomorrow, it would have become a tiger”. So the discipline a leader needs to develop while facing difficulties is that of confronting the problem head on, now.

Volkswagen had an issue with the emissions of its cars. Instead of dealing with the problem, it masked it by using a software-cheat device that provided fake emission results. It got away with it, only to be exposed later. It is still paying the price of postponing the unpleasant in terms of lost trust and lost sales.

~ Analysis paralysis

Another way people sometimes avoid dealing with a problem is by analysing it to death. They like to dissect the reasons for the difficulty, look at it from different angles. In my former organisation, we referred to this exercise as ‘admiring the problem’.

While some analysis is necessary, an overdose can compound the problem, rather than resolve it. Often, this over-analysis leads to paralysis. Cogitation is mistaken for action and discussing the problem becomes a proxy for solving it.

Leaders must develop a positive bias for action, when facing difficulties. Problems are there to be solved and leaders must earn their stripes on the battleground, by successfully facing these problems with calm, focused action.

~ Passing the buck

This is another form of avoiding difficulty. It may be as simple as a misunderstanding with a classmate today. Tomorrow, it could take the form of blaming a customer or colleague for a problem.

Any problem’s cause becomes somebody or something else. People with this response mechanism always find other people and circumstances to blame, and find excuses to not take action.

I remember how, in the early part of my career, I delayed letting go of a colleague who had not been performing. My excuse was that he was an early member of the team and that if I fired him, the team’s morale would go down.

When I eventually did fire him and sought to allay any fears the team had, their only response was, “What took you so long?”

In subsequent jobs, I learned to use the wisdom of Robert De Niro’s line from the movie Ronin: “Where there is doubt, there is no doubt’ to move rapidly on people-decisions.

Standing up

Leaders distinguish themselves by being willing to stand up when it matters. When the team or organisation is facing a crisis, a real leader takes responsibility and with it, a commitment to work on solving the problem.

SpiceJet was incurring losses of ₹2.8 crore a day in 2014, when Ajay Singh stepped in after the Marans exited the business. With relentless focus and a mantra of back-to-the-basics, he and his team turned the airline around to a situation in 2015 where they were making a profit of ₹1 crore a day — an example of moving from excuses to responsible execution.

In my sessions with students, I often give the example of Arnold Schwarzenegger — the former Governor of California and famous movie star. Before his life under the spotlight, Arnold was a body builder and an exceptional one at that — five times Mr Universe with biceps that had a circumference of 24 inches!

I often ask my young friends — what if you wanted biceps like Arnold’s. You’d head for the gym. Now, if you enter the gym and find a little pencil on the table, you’d you do a 100 lifts. Easy, but you wouldn’t get muscles like Arnold’s.

To build those biceps, you need to go to the working end of the gym and pick up the 10 or 20-kg weights. When you lift them, your hand will hurt, but when you stick with the routine, you will find yourself building those biceps you so dearly desired. Bigger weights, bigger muscles!

The lesson is simple — we enjoy the easy things in life. We gain happiness from them, we smile through the easy times, but they rarely help us grow. The difficult things we go through in life may not be enjoyable, but they help us build those muscles we need in life — discipline, humility, resilience, commitment and a lot more.

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