The Good Struggle

Summary Written by Martina McGowan

The Big Idea

The Pursuit of the Good Struggle

"...intellectual honesty about this world and its full implication for an organization is the first, essential, inescapable step toward responsible, successful leadership."- The Good Struggle, page 53

There is an age-old question about whether leaders are born or made. The answer is: Yes. Both. Anyone and everyone is capable of being a leader. But it takes commitment to become a good and responsible leader.

Knowing who we are, what we stand for, what we will not tolerate, combined with the abilities to learn, unlearn, adapt, and keep moving forward all provide moral and directional compasses by which we lead our lives and our companies forward. We accomplish this with a large dose of intellectual honesty. Intellectual honesty is seeing things the way they truly are, rather than as the way we want them to be.

Badarracco feels that the essence of what makes a good leader can be summed up by answering what he calls the “five enduring questions.” These are questions which each leader must be able to answer for ourselves.

1. Am I really grappling with the fundamentals?

2. What am I accountable for?

3. How do I make critical decisions?

4. Do we have the right core values?

5. Why have I chosen this life?

Insight #1

Responsible Leadership is a Choice

"Quis custodies ipsos custodies?"- The Good Struggle, page 55

Badaracco tells us that good leaders choose their roles and responsibilities because of the struggles involved, not in spite of them.

Increasingly, entrepreneurs and leaders are faced with intense competition, scarcity of resources and unforgiving markets. The role of leadership is to keep people focused on what matters most and what has value, in spite of the turbulence that surrounds us.

The first question he poses is about fundamentals. The fundamentals which Badaracco wishes us to grasp is “to understand the swirling context around organizations today and set a sound direction.”

In his discussion about accountability, the second question, Badaracco offers a thought-provoking quote. “Quis custodies ipsos custodies?” (Translation: Who guards the guardians?)

The guardians are those individuals or groups with power over other people. The guardians are the leaders. Who keeps the guardians in check? We are all familiar with stories like Enron’s collapse and corruption in other high places of business and government to be aware of that oversight.

As we can see from our own leadership models, in business and politics, and holding leaders accountable for how they use their power, is an ongoing and fundamental challenge. How do you make sure that people are using their power appropriately?

Yes, there are outside companies and oversight commissions that can be charged with this duty, but ultimately, accountability is governed by a set of standards that leaders create for themselves. These standards are internal and internalized.

Self-accountability is directed by being knowledgeable about what we are trying to accomplish, and what counts as success vs. failure. Basically, “Are we doing the job that is needed, and are we doing it well?”

Without clarity and oversight to control and guide how power is being used, self-serving interests can creep to the forefront of our thinking.

Self-accountability requires confidence, determination, and the courage to accept that responsibility.

Responsible leadership and leadership decision-making can be very demanding. It requires juggling information, moving people, and managing situations, often very quickly. Badaracco likens it to being like a spider managing a web.

In due course, the rightness of our decision-making is fleshed out through the passage of time, through experimentation, experience, error, failure and serendipity. We “learn, adapt, and move roughly forward.”

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Insight #2

Bright Lines Guide the Path

"...survival and success depend crucially on the tenacity, creativity and passion of leaders."- The Good Struggle, page 136

Great leaders have always been concerned with values. And, we lead best by sticking to our core values, and using what Joseph Badaracco refers to in his book as Bright Lines.

Most people and companies tend to state their values in convoluted mission or value statements. Most of the time these are just pretty words that sound like something we should all stand for, but degenerate into a mantra which no one believes or believes in. These are the words we recite at the beginning of our meetings or make into plaques, but have no effect on the day to day behavior of people or organizations.

Bright Lines are those values that leaders believe are so vitally important that when they are violated they lead to firing or strict probation. There is a Warren Buffet quote from the book that sums this up nicely. “If you lose money for the firm by bad decisions, I will be very understanding. If you lose reputation, I will be ruthless.”

Bright Lines are those things we and our organizations stand for when things get hard, or when real sacrifice is required.

Adherence to Bright Lines means that the values we work with are extensions of ourselves and our organizations. We believe in these things and they keep us on the path to accountability and credibility.

Bright Lines are one of the three core commitments of responsible leadership. The other two are clarity and meaningful projects.

Responsible leadership is supportive of people and meaningful projects. Badaracco uses the phrase “surgery without a knife.” These are the projects that people take on and are committed to because they want to make a clear, direct and immediate impact on their organizations.

The central question that propels this book is “Why do leaders choose the role of leadership?” Why do people choose this life? It is not because of money or position. Or, not these things alone.

Read the book

Get The Good Struggle on Amazon.

Joseph L. Badaracco

Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr., is the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School. He is also the senior associate dean and the chair of the MBA program. He serves on the faculty committee of Harvard’s Center for Ethics and the Professions and is also the faculty chair of the Nomura School of Advanced Management in Tokyo.

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