Schafer: From struggle comes great leadership

  • Article by: LEE SCHAFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 2, 2013 - 9:07 PM

Steven Snyder, whose new book “Leadership and the Art of Struggle” talks about how leaders grow through adversity, started a short blog post on Forbes.com in January the same way he started his book, which was then at the printer.

In it he tells of watching, mesmerized, as Steve Jobs demonstrated Apple Computer’s revolutionary new Lisa machine at a 1983 forum hosted by the Boston Computer Society. Two days later, a Sunday, he decided to e-mail his Forbes piece to the founder of the Boston Computer Society, whom he had not seen in many years.

Nice post, came the response. Except Jobs wasn’t there.

As he told an audience at a book launch last week, Snyder struggled to get through that Sunday. His book was being printed with what was apparently a manufactured memory of seeing Steve Jobs in its very first paragraph.

Looking back now, after a cheap fix was found, Snyder called it “the stumble, recover, and learn script,” one of six common “scripts” that Snyder wrote best described the progression of most people’s struggle episodes.

Snyder, of Orono, has hopes for his book to change how we think of leadership, and it’s clear it’s had an impact on at least one person already. That’s Snyder.

His book is not a memoir. But he described his career in a conversation this week not in terms of struggle, but mostly around two “great gifts” he had received. The first was an opportunity to work with the visionary Microsoft co-founder and CEO, Bill Gates.

Snyder was there in the early days of Microsoft, leading its development tools business and managing the relationship with IBM. After getting his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Minnesota, he later learned of a sort of Big Data 1.0 technology that could enable personalized recommendations on websites such as Amazon.com. His second gift was to become, in 1996, a co-founder and CEO of Net Perceptions, which commercially launched that new technology.

After leaving Net Perceptions in 2001, he spent much of the next few years volunteering at nonprofits. The change of course that led to the book came in early 2008, when he saw “Peer Gynt” at the Guthrie Theater. It was the adaptation of the classic Henrik Ibsen fantasy by poet Robert Bly, which opened with a surprise 50th birthday party for main character Peer.

Snyder is now 58. He was nothing like the dissolute and selfish Peer Gynt, but he said that to a 50-something executive in the audience, Peer Gynt still had an impact, even “ripple effects,” in his thinking months later. He decided, after Acts I and II at Microsoft and Net Perceptions, that he needed an Act III.

Unsure of direction, it occurred to him to examine leadership through what he called the “struggle lens.” That’s a definition of leadership he had first heard years before from Joe Badaracco, a Harvard Business School classmate of his who taught a course on leadership using examples from fiction and literature.

Badaracco put it this way: “Leadership is a struggle by flawed human beings to make some important human values real and effective in the world as it is.”

Snyder took these simple 23 words out into his personal network to see whether they could be the basis of an important research project. He met with a number of executives in the Twin Cities, including Kevin Wilde, General Mills’ chief learning officer, and Hubert Joly, now the CEO of Best Buy Co.

“He started telling me these stories, of people he had initially talked to,” said Louis Quast, the Hellervik/PDI Endowed Chair in Leadership and Adult Career Development at the University of Minnesota. “I said, ‘Steven, you have a hold of something really important and a very real side of leadership that most people don’t talk about.’ ”

With an earful of encouragement, Snyder eventually collected 151 “struggle stories,” in part by interviewing 35 leaders in business, government and the nonprofit community, all of them from the Twin Cities.

He asked for a reaction to Badaracco’s definition. He asked for a time when they experienced the greatest amount of struggle. Then he listened.

“Every person I interviewed had a story that was very intense,” Snyder said. “This is not something that only the rest of us experience.”

Snyder isn’t arguing simply that leaders are human and make mistakes, but that what they do next can define good leadership. For some, it’s a reinvention. For others, it’s the ability to creatively overcome a constraint. The most successful share a “growth mind-set,” which means they understand that leadership ability is not innate and fixed but can grow through practice and persistence.

Woven through his book are stories from people whose names you will recognize. Best Buy founder Dick Schulze appears, with a “blind spot” of being overly controlling as an executive that led to the 2012 break with the company’s board. Guthrie Director Joe Dowling’s story is told at length of his tumultuous experience in Ireland as a young artistic director.

Among the most interesting stories is that of Randy Hogan, the CEO of Pentair. He removed a key executive for unethical conduct, but the real crisis came later. That’s when he learned some staffers had known of it and kept silent, assuming that Hogan had to be well aware of what his lieutenant was doing and was thus blessing it.

One of the biggest contributions of Snyder’s book, of course, is getting leaders to speak up about subjects they usually keep to themselves.

“I might not have come up with the idea of using that story of Steve Jobs” at a book-launch event, Snyder said, “had I not been through the process of writing the book and internalizing its practices.”

lee.schafer@startribune.com • 612-673-4302

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