Shrink or Grow

Last month, The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, interviewed me about the challenges facing Liberal opposition leader Michael Ignatieff. Judith Timson, the Globe columnist, wrote:

"...the leader of the Liberal Party has been receiving the drubbing of his life. He has been "diagnosed" as narcissistic, damned as incompetent and dismissed as a dud. He's been mocked as Iffy and Igotist. And that's just in the past few weeks. Forget Tory attack ads: This non-stop blitz of searing criticism would erode even the strongest ego."

Of course, Barack Obama has seen a barrage of criticism. Health care reform, the economy, Afghanistan, and Iraq are but a few of the issues that have ignited condemnation of his policies and approaches.

Makes you wonder sometimes why good people would place themselves on the firing line of public service.

But challenges are not reserved for politicians alone. Every leader faces them, especially if they are attempting to do something transformational. As I said to the Globe, these are tests of character:

"How we survive such criticism constitutes what Toronto leadership consultant Patrick O'Neill calls "a real character moment." Under this kind of barrage, Mr. O'Neill said in an interview, there is no option of remaining the way you are: "You either shrink or you grow."

The Four Functions of A Challenge

    Transformational leaders see challenges as inevitable, even welcome. They are necessary conditions if we want to grow into our full potential. One must be ready for the tests of heart, intellect and will that are unleashed in the atmosphere of creative tension that accompanies a challenge.

    There are four essential functions that challenges play in the development of a leader:

    • They call forward our personal powers – including our gifts, talents, character qualities, fortitude, skills, aptitudes, knowledge, resourcefulness and creativity;
    • They help us develop new powers;
    • They teach "right application" of these resources;
    • They expose that which requires change or strengthening in our nature or our approach.

    Pretty efficient vehicle for transformation! How we respond to a challenge can often tell us more about who we really are than years of contemplation.

    Playing It Safe

    Many of us avoid challenges, preferring security and safety on the sidelines and in our comfort zone. Or, we chose certain predictable and controllable "challenges," by playing it smaller or settling for less. But real challenges are never predictable or controllable. They are tests of the heart, intellect and will and always bring problems, difficulties, and provocations that must be met and overcome.

    Our response to challenge depends on our readiness. Challenges can be seen as either a curse... or as a summons to excellence.

    Ultimately, challenges faced and overcome provide a sense of being fully alive, engaged and well matched for the journey of positive change that we that we are committed to make.

    To a Transformational Leader, a journey without challenge is dull, boring and tedious. These leaders see challenges as the right conditions for growth, and as the perfect means to leave the person you think you are in the furrow in order to claim the person you are destined to be.

    Good luck Messrs. Ignatieff and Obama... and luck to us all. Shrink or grow. There is nothing in between.

    Posted on November 1, 2009 .