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The Good Struggle

By Joseph Badaracco

(Harvard Business Review Press, 203 pages, $28)

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Snakes and Ladders was originally a board game in India that had a serious moral purpose. The snakes were meant to represent the vices of lust, anger, murder and theft, while the uplifting ladders represented virtues such as generosity, faith and humility. It served, Harvard Business School professor Joseph Badaracco notes in his new book The Good Struggle, to teach youngsters how to live good and useful lives in an uncertain world.

But today, he argues, we also live in a volatile, snakes-and-ladders world, and managers will continually struggle to chart a sensible, responsible course for themselves and their organizations. "Markets today raise hard questions about what it means to lead responsibly. What is responsible leadership when leaders confront so much uncertainty, when their jobs and their organizations seem temporary and fragile, when performance pressures focus everyone on short-term metrics, and when leaders don't have enough control of people and activities to deliver on long-term commitments?" he writes.

Thinking about volatility and studying entrepreneurs who face it starkly, he feels that leaders are seeking "the good struggle," a cause or challenge that merits their best efforts, testing their competence and character. They might fail, since a market-driven world offers no guarantees, but they believe the good struggle is worth the risk and cost. It is, however, a long effort, demanding perseverance and courage.

To help, he has developed a set of five questions that help define responsible leadership in today's snakes-and-ladders world:

1. Am I really grappling with the fundamentals?

Although we associate responsible leadership with sound values and effective action, he contends the first responsibility of leaders is intellectual and analytical. They must think about the forces shaping our economy and society, since markets can move swiftly and remorselessly, causing significant, even fatal, damage to their organizations, hurting those working for the leader.

2. Do I know what I am really accountable for?

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Leaders need to know what their basic job is – what they are responsible for accomplishing, and what counts as success and failure. Traditionally, the answer came through hierarchy – we were accountable to those above us – but today he argues it's through markets. If that seems like obeisance to a force with no moral judgments, he argues it is a moral act. Leaders must weigh what commitments they and their organization have made to individuals and groups in the markets and societies around them.

3. How do I make critical decisions?

Leaders inevitably face high-stakes decisions with long-term implications. In the past, corporations developed sophisticated analytical approaches and melded that with political power. Analysis is still important, but increasingly leaders will have to make decisions like entrepreneurs in turbulent markets, who are stuck with scant information, slender staff at best for analysis, no budget for consultants, scarce time for decisions – and no room for error. They will have to embrace the notion of "evolving commitments," pledges to move in a particular direction, but in a flexible, open-ended way as fluid markets change.

4. What are our core values?

Most companies have value statements, but he asks that we go beyond general, universal statements that everyone might subscribe to like honesty, integrity or respect for the individual. Instead, organizations must find the special, deep values – core values – that the leaders are willing to struggle to maintain when real sacrifices have to be made. "In a market-driven world," he adds, "these core values have to take markets seriously. They have to sometimes accelerate, sometimes transcend, and sometimes block the market forces around the organization." He suggests that three core values are essential to responsible leadership: Clarity, meaningful projects for the talented people in the enterprise, and bright ethical lines, so people don't bend the rules under market pressures.

5. Why should I take on the burdens of leadership?

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Leaders can't seek their posts simply because of the compensation, status, or dreams of being famous and successful. Those benefits can be obtained by avoiding leadership and becoming specialists in areas of banking, consulting or technology. Instead, they must find reasons within themselves to take on the good struggle as a means of testing their competence and character.

Prof. Badaracco's Leading Quietly and Questions of Character were also about leadership struggles and among the more enjoyable and thoughtful management books I have encountered. This one didn't touch me in quite the same way, but it is more clearly attuned to today's environment with its focus on our market-driven world – the previous books were more philosophical – and still helps readers to understand themselves better as they face the good struggle of leadership.


In Grounded (Jossey-Bass, 349 pages, $31.99) CEO advisor Bob Rosen shows how leaders can become more self-aware, develop their untapped potential, and drive better results.

Strategic Consultant Ram Nidumolu presents timeless Indian wisdom for business leaders in Two Birds in a Tree (Berrett-Koehler, 222 pages, $22.95)

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Entrepreneur Tom Oliver offers seven steps to realize your true power in Nothing is Impossible (McGraw-Hill, 253 pages, $28.95)

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