Companies & Industries

The Value of Suffering


It's no surprise that great leaders have often endured great hardship

Loss Creates Leaders. I made that the title of the first chapter in my new book because I believe it's the most important lesson for anyone who aspires to leadership in business or elsewhere in life. It is the foundation upon which all else is built. Loss made me the person and the leader I am today. You cannot have a rainbow without first having a storm. As my friend Fred Smith at Operation HOPE says, success in life is all about managing pain. To me, success is going from failure to failure without the loss of enthusiasm.

There is enormous value in having experienced and worked through legitimate suffering. Of course, I am not suggesting that you should invite pain—and certainly you should not create any—but I am saying that you should not fear it. As leaders and parents, we need to stop trying to save our team or our children from having to face life's hardships. Instead, we need to help them embrace challenges as teachable moments and as opportunities to learn. Whenever something "bad" or unfortunate happens to me, I always ask myself, "What's the lesson here?"

At the age of 18, I was homeless for six months. The result is that I can now walk into a meeting with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or with a head of state anywhere in the world, and not feel intimidation, insecurity, inferiority, or fear. What are they going to tell me in response to my new idea? No? Well, I had nothing when I walked in the door, so I am no worse off in leaving with nothing. What I don't have is a fear of failure. That is a life lesson you don't learn in business school. You learn it by facing your challenges head on. What keeps us all from embracing change? Fear. It was Franklin D. Roosevelt who famously said "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Fear Is Death

Fear is the ultimately prosperity killer. Look at this global crisis, and you will see a financial crisis that morphed into an economic crisis, and then a liquidity and a credit crisis, and now it is a basic crisis of confidence. That is fear, plain and simple.

I am not saying that fear doesn't deserve its measure of respect, because it does. But if you live by fear, lead by fear, and manage by fear, ultimately whatever you are "managing" (because you are not leading anything) will die. I have failed countless times, and it is not so bad. Failure and pain steel you to life. What doesn't build your character, a friend once told me, reveals your character.

On the topic of character, now seems to be as good a time as any to talk about a few, both good and bad.

Think about the spoiled kid who received a new BMW for his 16th birthday, the kid for whom everything seems to come easy. This is the same kid who often wants to sleep late and leave work early; the one who assumed his parents would send him to an Ivy League school, clueless and carefree as to how it would be paid for. Today, that same kid doesn't understand financial literacy and thinks money flows easily and credit automatically comes cheap.

Society has not helped much. My friend Quincy Jones argues that it takes 20 years to change a culture. Well, in the past 20 years we have made dumb sexy. Let's examine the formative hit television series, Friends: A bunch of middle-class kids, staying in a $10,000-per-month Manhattan apartment, and no one has a real job. Imagine an entire generation taking this message as guidance for who they are supposed to be when they grow up. These kids become ill-prepared for anything other than relative easy street. When the good times dry up—and they always do—they are unable to cope and become fear walking.

I think a great deal about the kind of character you need to lead. There's Candy Lightner, who lost her child to a drunk driver, only to later found Mothers Against Drunk Driving. President Carter and President Clinton both had issues that affected their respective terms, but who today are creating more positive change in the world out of office than they did in. Or take the childhood struggles of a Sam Walton, who understood poverty firsthand and later was able to build and expand a global business built on a simple premise: quality products for the working man at an affordable price. Of course that company today is Wal-Mart, and Mr. Walton drove the same pickup truck until the day he died. For him and many others, struggles and challenges translated into strengths and triumphs. I grew up surrounded by a lack of hope in South Central Los Angeles, and later founding Operation HOPE to make free enterprise and capitalism actually work for the poor.

There is a difference between being broke and being poor. Being broke is a temporary economic condition. But being poor is a disabling frame of mind and a depressed condition of your spirit. One must vow to never, ever be poor again. From the ghettos of inner-city communities to the gilded suites of some of America's most powerful boardrooms, there are people whose problem is that they are poor. Poor in spirit. Having a poor image of yourself creates an environment where fear is in control of your life and your decision-making.

The real value in suffering is that you find the invaluable, unmistakable, purposeful, and maybe even the passionate you in the midst of all those business meetings, credit card receipts, and business cards. And in so doing, you figure out that the best way to get ahead in this world is to lead by love and not fear. You help those around you to navigate stormy waters instead of avoiding them. And you figure out what you have to give in a world which seems to know only one question: "What do I get?" By managing the storms of your own life, you help to create a rainbow for you and others. Now that is a life worth living. That's a legacy that lives on forever.

Bryant is the founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of Operation HOPE, America's first nonprofit social investment banking organization. He is also vice-chairman of the U.S. President's Advisory Council on Financial Literacy. His new book is Love Leadership: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World (Wiley) .

Later, Baby
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