Leading Through Hurt

It goes without saying that most leaders at some point in their careers experience disappointment, pain, and in many cases, a sense of deep hurt.  Therefore, the fundamental question for leaders is not “if” or “whether” he or she will feel hurt, but “how” will it be managed productively and in the best service of the broader organization and the leader’s career.  It is not unusual for many leaders to sense resentment when hurt, that if not managed productively, travels quickly through the neurological pathways to connect with its road companion “revenge/getting even.” Symptoms of this might show up as generalizations regarding entire categories of people such as men, women, senior management, or nationals of other geographies. Sometimes it is accompanied by “withdrawal/passive resistance.” Decisions and actions taken in response to these symptoms such as, avoidance and exclusion, damaging comments, destructive alliance building, and ultimately derailing/blocking of careers can be even more damaging.

An alternative that outstanding leaders choose is “learning.” Great leaders have the ability to learn from hurtful experiences to shape different and positive experiences for their followers. These lessons become powerful foundations and core values of their leadership style and behaviors.  Rather than dwelling on their own personal hurt and anger, these leaders seem to have the ability to use these hurtful experiences as lifelong reminders of “what not to do” and even practicing the opposite behaviors.

A powerful example came from my own experience. I started my career at the American International Group (AIG) headquarters in New York City.  At the time, AIG was under the iron fisted rule of Maurice (Hank) Greenberg and an inner group of family and close advisors.  Greenberg was the classic autocratic leader – a hard charging, take no prisoners leader with a deliver or perish mindset.  It was not uncommon for executives to be publicly dressed down for not producing the planned results.  This type of leadership naturally cascaded down the organization.  As a newly minted MBA destined for overseas assignment, I was placed in a rotational training program designed for high potential employees.  Consequently, I had visibility to senior management meetings. In one such meeting, a leader at AIG in charge one of its core businesses ripped into one of the people that I considered a mentor.  My mentor Bob was an exceptionally generous, honest, and hardworking individual who had not delivered on his annual profitability target. Prior to the meeting, he had told me that this was due in large part to a number of natural calamities that had adversely affected the annual claims experience. The brutality and humiliation of his public dress down in front of his staff left me with tears in my eyes, and pure disgust and hate in my heart.  However, Bob kept his composure and seemed to be unaffected by this outrageous treatment.  After the meeting, over a cup of coffee, I asked Bob what it felt like to be tortured in that manner publicly.  He told me that he felt humiliated and incredibly frustrated.  I told him I was amazed at his composure, and I would have never known that was the way he felt.  The words he spoke to me on that December day in my first year of my career reverberate in my ears to this day, and have been pillars for my leadership development.  He told me that the deeper the words cut into his dignity and self-respect, the more certain he was that his greatest contribution to the development of his team would be to demonstrate the opposite.  In effect, he was establishing a powerful real time point of contrast between the oppressive culture created by Greenberg and his leadership team, and the leadership style that Bob witnessed in his family and later as a decorated veteran of the war in Vietnam.  I was floored. I asked him how he could have the presence of mind and the elevation of spirit to be able to distance himself from such a brutal attack in real time.  His answer was incredibly powerful in its simplicity.  He said “Kaveh, those verbal bullets pale compare to metal ones coming at you while you are carrying someone in your platoon to safety…”  As I listened, the power of the analogy did not escape me – the hurt buddy he carried to safety and the bruised colleagues at AIG that he was hoisting above his shoulders so they could have a sense of the higher road and their higher selves…


Questions for online conversation:

  1. How have you or others that you know managed personal hurt and disappointment at work?
  2. What have been the consequences of their actions?
  3. What is your powerful story in this regard???

About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

3 Responses to Leading Through Hurt

  1. Keith West says:

    Kaveh–I found the experience that you conveyed in this post extremely powerful. In reflecting on the topic of “hurt” feelings, I remember a time in my Federal career when I had assumed a leadership role in an audit division. As the program director of this audit division, I had three project managers and their respective teams working for me. Not long after assuming my new role, I had a serious conflict with one of the project managers of one of the teams. There were definitely words and hurt feelings (on both our parts). To this day though I cringe at how poorly I managed the situation. I let the situation fester to the point where I believed that every action this manager took was sinister–or in some way was meant to undercut my leadership. In actuality, reflecting back years later, I’m sure this wasn’t the case. Nevertheless, I let it get to me to the point where I became paranoid about any actions this person was taking. One of the unfortunate consequences of how I managed this situation was that it had a de-stabilizing effect on the entire audit division–not just my relationship with this one manager but the conflict impacted the cohesiveness of our entire group (all three teams). I definitely didn’t manage this situation productively and in the “service of the broader organization” as Bob did in the situation you discuss in your post. Looking back, I know I didn’t exhibit the personal and professional maturity that a leader should in such a situation.

    Keith West

    • Kaveh Naficy says:

      Keith thank you so much for sharing such a profound learning experience. in my coaching of executives I stress that behavioral change and ultimately reaching one’s potential requires three steps which are abbreviated in the three letters NCR
      Name it or notice it– becoming aware of one’s blind spots
      Claim it– taking ownership and accountability for one’s learning
      Reframe it- exhibit new behaviors and different ( more positive) presence
      it sounds based on above that you have at least successfully traveled through the first two the third step becomes much easier once the first two have been exhibited. congratulations

      • Keith West says:

        Kaveh–I greatly appreciate the reply. Also, thanks so much for sharing the three steps–NCR. That is very insightful.

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