The advantage of hardship

It plays a big role in building successful leaders

As a student of human behavior, especially the behaviors people present in the workplace, I am fascinated by the influential role hardship plays in shaping a person’s mindset and work styles. Repeatedly, I see people who have used hardship to their advantage to facilitate positive change while others use it as a crutch to limit or prohibit growth and learning.

According to the Center for Creative Leadership, “four major groups of experiences were most beneficial to leadership development: key jobs, hardships, training and important people.” Meaning those that have made it far as leaders in their organizations demonstrate those four experiences as having shaped them into successful leaders.

As a professional who works in the leadership development arena, I have found myself leaning on the importance of celebrating (when possible and appropriate, of course) unpleasant and harsh life experiences because they leave us with so much knowledge. Encouraging my clients and peers to reflect (note: not dwell) on particularly memorable adversity or hardship experiences has been a very useful tool. And as a professional who values “putting her money where her mouth is,” I also reflect on past experiences and how they have shaped me as a professional.

For example, in my very early years of yoga instruction I worked at a studio where the owner regularly diminished his new hires.

One particularly vivid memory is coming out of a class and mingling with students who were excited to compliment me. My boss at the time, who overheard the exchanges, quickly entered himself into the conversation to tell the students, “You may want to consider taking classes from my other, more senior, instructors as Pubali has a long way to go.”

Even at the ripe age of 23 I knew that if I ever managed or employed people, that this type of communication was hurtful and would reflect poorly on me and my business.

After 17 years, I remain convinced that the above behaviors (or others like it) are a strong indicator that a manager, leader or even a company’s culture, requires critical intervention. Left uncorrected, the damage can be considerable.

The question that I pose here is, “How do you take these negative experiences and turn them into a positive one?”

Allow me to share a few kernels of advice on using hardship as a catalyst for positive change:

1. Have a clear idea of precisely how you want to leverage your personal hardship experiences. Sharing sad stories for the sake of sad stories is not a good use of anyone’s time. Be clear to yourself and others what your takeaway was and why. Be able to point at real, factual examples of how you have grown or benefited from a past hardship.

2. Hardship should be used exclusively in a future-focused format and not something that is dwelled or fixated on. In other words, if you have a story to tell, share the experience and shift quickly to what you learned from it.

3. Take ownership of the part you may have played in a time of hardship. What we experienced in the past as hardship may have been partially caused by us, and it’s important to acknowledge this. The worst is when a hardship-turned-success story is one where there is a great deal of blame-laying and finger-pointing.

4. Use humor and levity whenever possible. I understand that hardship is no laughing matter. That said, if we want to use a story to help and motivate, we need to make sure we focus on the positive outcomes and not distract ourselves (and others) with the negative.

5. Do not diminish or minimize the hardship stories of others. We must remember that people define “hard” very differently based on their life experiences, culture, financial backgrounds, etc. When you share, so will others — stay positive and focus on the teaching moment.

6. Do not use hardship as an excuse. People often fall into the trap of wanting others to suffer because they did. Enabling others’ success builds relationships.

It is critical for me to point out that many experiences of hardship are so serious and significant that using the story advantageously — or even sharing it — simply cannot and should not be done. You are the best judge of whether your personal experiences are shareable and usable.

Pubali Chakravorty-Campbell, CEO of Human Resource Partners, can be reached at 603-749-8989 or through

Categories: Business Advice, Workplace Advice