As organizations address the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic aftermath, developing leaders often becomes secondary to more immediate efforts to steer the business through the uncertainty and upheaval. Yet, a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic may provide one of the best opportunities to equip your leaders to deal with a broad array of challenges. However, doing so will require shifting mindsets and taking actions that may seem counter to the moment.
Hardships like the pandemic fall outside the widely recognized 70-20-10 framework of developmental experiences (70 percent challenging assignments, 20 percent developmental relationships, 10 percent training and coursework). However, the developmental impact of hardships is captured in the same Lessons of Experience research conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership that gave rise to that framework. Hardships contain many of the same elements that make challenging assignments a powerful source of learning, including pressure, high stakes, unfamiliar responsibilities, and rapid shifts in new directions.
Hardships differ from challenging assignments in a few key ways. First, they are usually unplanned and unintentional. Black swan events like the pandemic put nearly everyone in reaction mode. Second, because of their unexpected nature, most of the learning from hardships stems from how people respond. With a prolonged, evolving crisis like the pandemic, our response to the situation may go through multiple phases, each with its own unique lessons. Finally, hardships force many of us to come face-to-face with some measure of failure or shortcoming. To the extent that we individually and collectively prevail in the current crisis, we will all still be able to reflect on specific mistakes and missteps.
Because of their differences from challenging assignments, hardships are also a source of unique learning. Specific developmental benefits associated with going through a hardship include:
- Greater self-awareness. The experience of hardship often reveals your personal limitations, patterns, beliefs, and skills you didn’t see or appreciate before. By understanding what makes you tick, you have the chance to make new choices in the way you act, think, and feel.
- Increased compassion for others. Going through hardship can open your eyes to others’ hardships since you’re forced to confront the truth that you’re not invincible or immune to challenges. Your sense of compassion can grow when you receive support and help from others.
- Resilience. When you survive hardship, you build strength to tackle new challenges and face future failures. Resilience teaches you to be open to learning, flexible, and durable as things change.
For all they have to offer, the learnings associated with enduring hardships are not easily gained. Individuals who learn from hardship resist the temptation to put blame on the situation or others, recognize their own shortcomings, and move beyond the pain of hardship to commit themselves to resolve the personal limitations they realized.
These behaviors do not happen automatically or come naturally for many leaders. They need the appropriate support and right environment to process and grow from the deep learning that can come from hardship. To make the most of this tremendous opportunity for development and growth for your team, you should be engaging in and encouraging these practices:
1) Acknowledge the pain. (Don’t deny it or push it down.) There is strength in vulnerability. Be willing to share the pain resulting from this experience and offer compassion and support to others. Doing so will allow the path to learning to begin.
2) Talk about the experience. (Don’t keep thoughts and feelings inside.) Hardships, especially one the size and scope of the COVID-19 pandemic and its enduring economic effects, are difficult to process. Engage in dialogue so you and others can begin to make sense of and create meaning from the experience. Hearing different perspectives and insights on the same shared experience adds to everyone’s understanding.
3) Revisit the highs and lows. (Don’t just forge ahead and forget it.) Reflection is one of the most important tools in learning from experience. Encourage others to go back to key events—successes and failures—and carefully examine them. What circumstances were they faced with? What actions did they (or didn’t they) take? Why? What were the outcomes? What might they have done differently?
4) Accept responsibility and accountability. (Don’t point fingers or make excuses.) When it comes to examining mistakes and failures, defensiveness is a definite roadblock to learning. Help others recognize and accept their missteps and examine what they reveal about behaviors and skills they need to develop.
5) Seize mistakes and failures as learning opportunities. (Don’t dwell on them.) Leaders who excel at learning from experience often make mistakes, but they seldom make the same mistake twice. Encourage others to come up with key takeaways from their experience and strategies for dealing with similar challenges in the future.
6) Apply lessons learned. (Don’t let all the hard work go to waste.) A lesson isn’t fully learned until it has been applied. Follow up with others to monitor their growth and see how they are progressing with trying out new approaches based on what they’ve learned. Coach them through setbacks and provide encouragement and support.
Hardships are painful to endure, and we often prefer to put them behind us. However, investing additional energy and effort into mining hardship experiences for the rich learning they offer can yield a net positive with lasting benefits. Demonstrate the courage and commitment necessary to help yourself and others in the organization to learn everything they can from this experience and emerge as stronger, wiser, more compassionate leaders. Help your leaders bounce back from hardship and move forward.