[August 28, 2021] It has been a long-running theme here on my leadership blog that a leader’s character can only be developed through hard times. But I’m going out on a limb today and now arguing that good character can only be developed through suffering. That’s right, only by suffering can the best in us truly come out.
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired and success achieved.” – Helen Keller, born blind and deaf, became an author, political activist, and lecturer
First, allow me to explain what I mean by “suffering;” a term that has been misused and abused so much that its meaning is confused. For simplicity sake, suffering to me is anything, either physical or mental, that creates a significant unpleasant feeling, emotion, or sensation. Philosophers have attempted – at great lengths – to explain it to us but here we treat it as something that evokes great stress in a person.
The idea that suffering affects us in different ways has long been recognized, long before the written word. In some of the earliest writings of the Bible, we see in Matthew 13 the parable of the sower. Two of the three soils that failed to produce a crop represent people who did not know how to handle suffering. The lesson? Suffering will make you grow bitter or better, depending upon how you handle it.
Early in the Iraq War, I was one of the first to point out to the media that combat did not only have negative effects upon those who fought. Combat made most of us better people, more resilient, better at prioritizing the important things in life, and stronger mentally. True, some soldiers were hit hard and never recovered but overall the impact was more positive than negative. For the vast majority, suffering made us better people.
Yet when we try to protect people from suffering the effort can backfire. When we protect others from the trauma of life, we also prevent them from strengthening their emotions and place them on a path that leads to great disappointment, frustration, and emotional weakness. Better to let others experience the pain of tragedy than to stop them from experiencing life.
Good leaders will always protect those they can from unreasonable suffering. But great leaders recognize the value even in suffering; for it strengthens the soul, the mind, and the body. Only through it can we be a better person.