The Good Struggle: A book review by Bob Morris

good-struggleThe Good Struggle: Responsible Leadership in an Unforgiving World
Joseph L. Badaracco
Harvard Business Review Press (2013)

How to “raise the odds of working successfully and responsibly in the exciting, uncertain, recombiant, market-driven world around us”

I read this book when it was first published (2013) and recently re-read it while preparing to interview its author, Joe Badaracco. If anything, his insights are more relevant and more valuable today than they were five years ago.

Throughout human history, the greatest leaders have been those who prevailed and — at least for a time — survived despite severe struggles. According to Badaracco, “Struggle has always described leaders facing crises or strong resistance, but today a sense of anxiety and struggle has spread much further. It affects people throughout and colors much of their experience. We live in an era of extraordinary opportunities for innovation, creativity, and social contribution, but uncertainty, intense performance pressure, risk, and turbulence also surround us. And the reason for the stunning opportunities and the widespread sense of struggle is one and the same: the market-driven world in which we live and work.”

I agree with Badaracco about the essential importance of waging what he characterizes as “the good struggle,” during which responsible leadership is “the strength – intellectual, moral, emotional, and even physical –to make sound but fallible commitments for oneself and an organization… Struggle has always been central to accomplishing anything worthwhile, and this is especially true today.” It is also important to keep the struggles of leaders in a global perspective. These struggles “don’t rank among the world’s urgent problems” [and] are nothing fundamentally new. Leadership has always demanded commitment, struggle, and courage…What is happening now may simply be a return to the open-field, brawling capitalism that preceded the rise of giant, powerful industrial companies.”

That said, the current world confronts leaders and managers with a grueling combination of intense performance, uncertainty, and complexity. “This is why it is very important to find contemporary answers to the enduring questions of responsible leadership.”

One of the defining characteristics of great leaders is that they know which are the right questions to ask about almost every major issue. Badaracco poses five enduring questions for his reader to ask…and answer:

1. “Am I really grappling with the fundamentals?”
2. “Do I know what I am really accountable for?”
3. “How do I make critical decisions?”
4. “Do we have the right core values?”
5. “Why have I chosen this life?”

“Each of the [five] enduring questions points to a demanding struggle. None of the questions is ever answered, finally and permanently, by an individual leader or society. But thinking hard about these questions can help leaders raise the odds in the exciting, recombinant, market-driven world all around us.”

The global marketplace today is more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than at any prior time that I can recall. The responsible leadership that Badaracco advocates includes but is by no means limited to decision-making.

In Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls, Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis assert that what really matters “is not how many calls a leader gets right, or even what percentage of calls a leader gets right. Rather it is important how many of the important ones he or she gets right.” They go on to suggest that effective leaders “not only make better calls, but they are able to discern the really important ones and get a higher percentage of them right. They are better at a whole process that runs from seeing the need for a call, to framing issues, to figuring out what is critical, to mobilizing and energizing the troops.”

This is a never-ending process for leaders. The competitive marketplace changes so they and their organizations must change while sustaining the “right core values” to Joseph L. Badaracco refers. In process, they define themselves by the decisions made and by how they then respond to their consequences. After elections, we say “The people have spoken.” After a major development in the business world, we say “The markets have spoken.” Yes, our world often seems to be “unforgviving” but the “good struggle” must be made nonetheless and responsible leadership usually — not always — prevails.

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Badaracco is the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School. He is a graduate of St. Louis University, Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes scholar, and Harvard Business School, where he earned an MBA and a DBA. In recent years, Badaracco served as Chair of the MBA Program and as Housemaster of Currier House in Harvard College. He has also been chairman of the Harvard University Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility and has served on the boards of two public companies. Badaracco has taught in executive programs in the United States, Japan, and many other countries and has spoken to a wide variety of organizations on issues of leadership, values, and ethics. He is also the faculty chair of the Nomura School of Advanced Management in Tokyo.

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