Is leadership difficult? (Yes, but don’t let that scare you)

Is Leadership Difficult?

Throughout my career I have had numerous challenges and setbacks. I have had people take credit for my work, I have been reprimanded for going above and beyond to help customers, and I have been directly ordered to do things by my boss and then reprimanded by them when their superiors got upset. Although I have definitely had some wins, I remember few of them. But I remember every single pain point. And while they were certainly no fun to go through, the were definitely preparing me to be a leader.

Being a good leader is difficult because the character growth, personal accountability, and discipline required to be a good leader do not come naturally to people. The life skills required to be an effective leader are acquired through a lot of failure, reflection, and resilience. Acquiring these skills and then putting them into practice effectively is what makes leadership a difficult, but definitely worthwhile endeavor.

While this article is less about how to be a good leader (you can read about that How to Develop Leadership Skills here, and also Can I Be a Leader Without Experience? here), it does highlight the importance of why leadership is so difficult, but also why it’s worthwhile.

Why Difficult Things are Worth it

American opera singer Beverly Sills once said, “there are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” My father used to quote this often while I was growing up, and the older I get the more I realize what a profound and true statement this is. Think about it, there are a lot of things you can fake. People can fake being rich by taking out huge loans to purchase extravagant things. But actually earning wealth is very difficult and requires a lot of sacrifice. Getting in great shape is another example. People can emulate what good health looks like, but to actually be healthy dedication and sacrifice.

“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.”

-Beverly Sills-

I say this often, but every decision we make has a reward and a cost. Think about it. Ice cream, for example. You eat ice cream, you get an immediate reward. It’s delicious and releases dopamine. But then comes the cost, elevated blood sugar, calories, and stored fat.

Credit cards. You get the immediate reward of the thing you want, but then comes the cost. Interest charges. Lots of them. Enjoy paying for that $43 dollars for that $17 lunch over the next three years.

Cardio. The price comes first in the form of absolute suck. Then the reward; calorie burn, healthier heart, lower blood pressure.

If I could confer one important truth to everyone in life it would be the following… grab a pen because this is important. Every good thing in life, the price comes first and the reward comes second. Every destructive thing in life, the reward is first and the price is second. Please see my handy-dandy chart below.

ActionWhat comes FirstWhat Comes Second
Donuts (Bad)(Reward) Enjoying a donut(Cost) Calories, sugar, fat
Credit cards (Bad)(Reward) Getting that item(Cost) Interest charges
Cheating Your Taxes (Bad)(Reward) A little extra money(Cost) Up to jail time
Buying Cheap Toilet Paper (Bad)(Reward) Saving a little money(Cost) I mean, you know.
Cardio (Good)(Cost) Running/Climbing Stairs(Reward) Better health
Lifting Weights (Good)(Cost) Sore muscles(Reward) Improved Strength
Waking up early (Good)(Cost) Leaving those warm covers(Reward) More productivity
Investing responsibly (Good)(Cost) Less cash in your bank(Reward) Much more cash later
Turning of 24 hour news (Good)(Cost) Feeling “not as informed”(Reward) Improved mental health

Do Hard Things

I hope it’s abundantly clear. The pathway to greatness is doing hard things. The US Navy Seals have a simple saying, “embrace the suck.” This simple three-word phrase also carries with it a lot of wisdom. If all good things in life means paying a cost up front, and there are no shortcuts to get anywhere worth going, then get busy embracing the suck!

Look. It’s simple. In life we all get a profound choice; choose the pain of discipline or choose the pain of regret. The sad truth is, humans are wired to reach for the easy thing which provides immediate rewards (ice cream, Netflix, etc.) while not really thinking about the cost. I want you to start flipping that script and get into the habit of paying the cost. (By the way, absolutely hands-down the best ever written on forming good habits and breaking bad habits is Atomic Habits by James Clear).

Back to Leadership Being Difficult

Now that we have gotten out of the way why you don’t need to be afraid of difficulty, let’s get back to the leadership discussion. Yes being a leader is hard, but it is 100% worth it. Not in spite of its difficulty, but because of its difficulty. Putting obstacles in your path intentionally to challenge yourself is exactly what makes you become a good human being, and good leader.

In his private journals collected and published called, “Meditations” the Roman emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius had this exact insight two thousand years ago. It was his realization that we need obstacles in order to achieve greatness. We need resistance to grow. Obstacles and challenges are weightlifting for the soul and character. Thus, he wrote in his timeless journal, “The impediment to action is what advances action. The obstacle is not in the way, the obstacle is the way.” Which is a much more beautiful and elegant way to say, “embrace the suck” because it’s exactly what will make you the person you need to become.

Why is Leadership Difficult?

Great leadership is difficult not only because it requires so much effort and energy to become the type of person who is capable of being a great leader, but also because once a leader your actions and choices are almost always complex. As a leader you will have to deal and engage with numerous people who are on various stages of their life’s journey. Understanding and respecting this goes a long way.

I once worked with a director who went through a lot of personal growth. They lost a ton of weight, got really healthy and disciplined in their life and choices. However they struggled with leadership because instead of being empathetic towards others who had not yet figured out that path to self-improvement, they adopted the attitude “if I can do it, anyone can.” Instead of leading people out of the trap of “victim mentality” they often berated people for using excuses which, ironically, further entrenched them into feeling victimized.

So there’s the rub. As difficult and challenging as personal growth, discipline, and accountability are to attain, that is only half the battle of good leadership. The second half is becoming a student of human psychology. Just because you found a path to improvement does not mean others can or are able to walk the same path. Everyone can find a path to greatness, but each story and life are different. As a leader, you have to respect where people are on the path and walk beside them, encouraging them to keep taking steps. Not berate them for not being as far along as you are.

Good Leadership Means Taking Ownership

Taking total ownership of outcomes is also a very difficult and unnatural thing to internalize. Yet, as a leader, especially one in a position of authority, that is exactly what you have to do. To be a success, you have to consider every outcome is 100% your fault. Is an employee under your supervision failing? You have not figured out the correct way to motivate or manage them. Did the project fail because a key team member was out sick unexpectedly? That is your fault for failing to make contingency plans. Did an employee forget a key meeting with a stakeholder? Your fault. If it was such an important meeting you should have emphasized that to them ahead of time and ensured there were no roadblocks to them attending.

Obviously not everything is literally your fault. However, adopting and demonstrating this approach to your peers, bosses, and subordinates will show them you take ownership of outcomes and they should be willing to do the same. This mentality also prevents you from making excuses or chalking up failures to the “obvious” thing. Well, the project failed because Billy missed the meeting.

No sir (or madam). You do not let yourself off that hook. What could you have done leading up to that to ensure Billy made that meeting? And by the way, a team performs optimally when everyone, including Billy, adopts the mindset that all outcomes are 100% their fault. It truly is amazing what can be done when no one on the team cares who gets the credit, and when no one is afraid to take responsibility. Remember, excuses are good for your ego. Taking responsibility is good for your career.

“It truly is amazing what can be done when no one on the team cares who gets the credit, and when no one is afraid to take responsibility. Remember, excuses are good for your ego. Taking responsibility is good for your career.”

-Arik Digital-

Good Leadership Means Being Willing to Follow

One of my favorite aspects of leadership is this underrated concept of being willing to follow. I once worked for an elected official to whom I brought an idea. He looked at me and said “I love it, let’s do it! Just tell me what I need to do.” That really invigorated me to get to work. I busted my tail, worked hard and the project was an utter failure.

I approached him later with my hat in hand to tell him the project failed. I will never forget what he said, “that’s ok. It was honestly a pretty bad idea anyway. I just went with it because I wanted to encourage you to take risks. The worst thing I could have done was discourage your idea, even if it was a bad one. It was more important to me that you feel comfortable bringing me ideas and taking initiative than the ideas being good.”

What a profound moment for me and my concept of good leadership. Being a good leader is not necessarily getting the answers right, always having great ideas, or making the right call on everything. Being a good leader means knowing how to build others up, and being willing to step aside when they show initiative, and giving them a safe place to fail. After all, wisdom and success are nothing more than failure + reflection.

Some Additional Reading

For some additional reading on what makes a good leader check out our articles below. Thanks for visiting, and as always get out there and lead!

Erik Murrah

Author, nerd, chess player, artist, business owner, runner, mediocre philosopher, outdoorsman. Creator of the Arise Tribe.

Additional Reading