Hardships, as Formative Moments

Can today’s brutal times spur inner leadership? Korn Ferry’s Evelyn Orr on how many executives tie personal hardships to their own development.

In this regular column, Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute, shares her thoughts on the intersection of career, relationships, and gender.

Last winter, I traveled to the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota, where 0 degrees Fahrenheit is balmy and you ski rather than paddle around islands. On a nature walk, I commented on the stress the trees must be under with heavy, deep snow weighing down their branches. I thought I would be doing a pine tree a favor by knocking some snow off and letting its branches rebound. A naturalist used this as a teaching moment and shared that the weight of heavy snow actually helps the trees grow stronger and more resilient.

Research suggests that humans are not so different from trees in this respect. Certainly, too much weight can knock us down, but pressures and hardships can also build strength and resilience. In the classic research from the Center for Creative Leadership—the roots of our understanding of learning agility—approximately 200 executives (mostly white and male) shared the defining experiences that were most formative in their leadership development over the course of their lives and careers. The study was later replicated with women executives and in Asia, with similar patterns of results.

Their responses are the source of the 70/20/10 rule of leadership development: 70% of development comes from learning on the job, 20% learning from others, and 10% learning from courses. What we forget is that the rule of 70/20/10 only accounts for three-quarters of the experiences cited.

Fully 25% of the formative experiences these executives shared were hardships. They tended to be personal hardships like divorce, the death of a loved one, or illness. There is a reason we overlook hardships as developmental experiences in our approach to leadership and talent development—we would never plan for or wish for hardships as part of our leadership-development journeys. And yet the wisdom, insights, and lessons learned from these hardships shaped these leaders’ purpose, way of being, and mindset, resulting in profound change and growth.

The key to wresting the most value from the most painful experiences is reflection, finding meaning and crystalizing insights. The leaders who were most able to learn from experience, including hardships, took more lessons to heart, took away deeper insights with more nuance, and were able to apply those lessons to a future experience. In other words, a lot of energy and thought went into observing, reflecting, making meaning, and transforming themselves.

Our research on women leaders confirmed the leadership impact of learning from hardship. Among the women CEOs Korn Ferry has interviewed, many of them experienced an early loss like the death of a parent or sibling, or endured poverty, racial prejudice, or the trials of being first-generation immigrants. It was clear that the courage and perspective they gained from their hardships is what gave them the fortitude to aspire to great responsibility and impact in their professional roles. And it prompted the mantra we heard again and again when it came to risks they took in their professional careers: “What’s the worst that can happen?”

We know, of course, that unfortunately, worst is actually happening now for many of us. The hope is that the need for leadership and impact will be greater than the risk we take personally—and that we take the challenge and rise to the occasion, no matter what.