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Book Review - Leadership and the Art of Struggle

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Book Review by Stevan Mirkovich 

Leadership and the Art of Struggle: How great leaders grow through challenge and adversity. San Fransico: CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Leaders everywhere, including those of the pastoral variety (wink, wink), are quick to affirm the maxim: struggle, whether as a result of conflicts, tensions, or being out-of-balance (Snyder, 2013), creates the crucible in which great leaders are formed and molded and where other would-be leaders get derailed, discouraged, and burned out. The affirmation and recognition that struggle plays a central role in leadership may seem obvious to the seasoned leader, but it does not make the experience and journey through struggle any less challenging or any easier to navigate. Pastoral burnout remains a major concern for churches, denominations, and pastors alike. The statistics about struggle and eventual burnout can be overwhelming and downright scary. Maybe you can identify a little to closely to this reality and perhaps are facing burnout right now. This ubiquitous nature of struggle within leadership sets the stage for a welcome primer and guide by author Steven Snyder (2013) called Leadership and the Art of Struggle: How Great Leaders Grow through Challenge and Adversity. While written for a broader audience (not directed to church workers) and drawing the majority of its stories from the business world, the book actually provides many very helpful practices and correctives for both seasoned and fresh leaders.

Snyder is duly qualified to write such a primer; he is a long-time leader and business professional with broad experience, a university professor at the Carlson School of Management, and finally a leading-edge leadership, innovation, and change consultant.

Snyder divides his book into three parts. The first section begins by acknowledging the place and role of struggle in the situations and lives of all leaders. This, Snyder asserts, is the beginning of acceptance. An underlying motif for Snyder is the need for leaders to embrace a greater degree of authenticity and vulnerability when faced with their own struggles. He lands very quickly on one of the most redeeming and finest qualities in the book, saying

Yet societal taboos often prevent leaders from talking openly and honestly about their struggles for fear of being perceived as ineffective and inadequate. Social mores reinforce the myth that leaders are supposed to be perfect and that struggle is a sign of weakness and a source of shame. (p. 2)

This is a very big problem in churches. Young pastors and even those who’ve pastored for years have strong social pressures to avoid appearing “weak” because this will be seen as a shameful position to be in. It is important for the pastor to recognize these unrealistic pedestals and instead to model authenticity, vulnerability, and transparency by embracing and ultimately speaking about there struggles. The gospel sets out to do away with shame and our practice as leaders can continue to make that gospel truth a reality.

Throughout the book Snyder is at his best in making struggles, challenges, growth, shortcomings, and other sundry issues accessible and, dare one say, normal. Young and inexperienced leaders are especially susceptible to the overwhelming pressure to succeed and the subsequent fear to admit that they are not perfect, and for that reason a book and message of this stature is very welcome indeed.

In totality, Snyder captures the depth and breadth of struggle that all leaders face from time to time. Perhaps what strikes one the most about the book is Snyder’s ability to take those difficult times and turn them into doors of opportunity and reason for optimism. This is especially remarkable precisely because these very same struggles can be so difficult to peer through and often cloud and oppress the mind of the pastor to such a degree that they simply feel like quitting and walking away. While the book is not entirely exhaustive and some leaders and pastors may not find their issues completely pinpointed, a general rubric is present and provides sufficient inspiration and tools for both aspiring and seasoned pastors to navigate the waters and master the art of struggle.

Reference: Snyder, S. (2013). Leadership and the art of struggle: How great leaders grow through challenge and adversity. San Fransico: CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Stevan Mirkovich is the pastor of the Cornerstone Church in Coquitlam.