One of the old maxims of leadership is “Adversity breeds success.” Indeed, I know very few successful people who have not experienced adversity in their professional or personal lives. (The exception, of course, are those who inherit wealth).
But it’s one thing to say “adversity breeds success” and it’s another to actually turn that adversity into success.
Laura Huang, a professor at Harvard Business School, has taken the concept even further in her new book, Edge:Turning Adversity into Advantage. Hard work, skills and performance doesn’t necessarily mean success. Preconceived perceptions, stereotypes and biases can negatively impact success. Appearance, race, gender or age and experience all impact how people perceive you and thus impact your potential success. But Huang makes the case that many of those biases and perceptions are actually ones we create as barriers.
Thus the focus of her book is spotlighting people who have flipped stereotypes and biases in their favor. And throughout “Edge,” Huang weaves in details of her own life story, encountering her fair share of bias and adversity as an Asian-American woman who ventured into male dominated fields (computer science and engineering) then turned to business and finally, academia.
Mercifully, Professor Huang does not write like a, um, professor. “Edge” is quite good and interesting storytelling, with life lessons and advice built-in as well. (About the only concession she makes to academia is a number of footnotes, but even those are mostly humorous asides). By the end of the book, you feel as though you’ve taken a really cool Masterclass in how to succeed either as a leader or entrepreneur.
Everyone at one point feels they’ve been underestimated, and many people have disadvantages in their lives. The key is turning that item to your advantage. In my professional life, I was stymied years ago as a leadership strategist and trainer by the fact that I did not have a graduate degree. This was self-inflicted; no one told me that is was a disadvantage; it was just a chip on my shoulder. It was when a client told me that my value to him was that I had years of experience actually managing and leading people, both in a corporate setting and then in my own business that I realized I was good enough without that MBA.
I first ‘encountered’ Professor Huang several years ago when she was an Assistant Professor at The Wharton Schoo,l when she participated in a video showing professors reading some rather brutal student feedback in a parody of Jimmy Kimmel’s Mean Tweets. (I still show that video in leadership programs to illustrate the need for humility). She then conducted significant research and published a paper on how “gut feel” plays a role when investors make risky decisions.
When you have genuine curiosity about a subject, it pays to follow those from whom you can learn. Years ago, the only way to do this was to attend classes by those academic experts, which also meant investing significant time and money into a business school. (To say nothing about getting accepted at that business school; even 30+ years after graduating, I’m sure my undergraduate GPA would sink me from being accepted at any reputable academic institution).
But now, having intellectual curiosity about management, leadership, entrepreneurship can be rewarded by following (and perhaps even engaging) renowned experts on social media, going online to read their papers, watch their speeches and classes and learning from what they do. Of course it’s not as great as going to Harvard Business School, but not all of us can go there anyway. And the internet provides a way to access those experts not just from one school but from many. Professor Huang is one of 10 people I follow closely – not just from my position as an entrepreneur, but also as someone who’s fortunate to be looked at by some as a person who can help them succeed as a leader and in business.
Edge is Professor Huang’s acronym for success: Enrich, Delight, Guide and Effort. It’s further illustrated by 13 principles, all of which delight me but only one of which I’ll share with you (buy the book!):
It’s not where you’ve been, but where you’re going.
This is deceptively simple. In the corporate world, you might be hired because of where you’ve been (education and experience), but you’ll only move into the leadership ranks based on performance and potential. When people understand where you’re going and how you’re getting there – that’s when they’ll follow.
I can’t think of a more relevant book to read in times like these.
More Reasons To Read “Edge”
- The author suggests people stop being constrained by your weaknesses or skills you don’t have. (Correct; that chip on your shoulder is almost always of your own making. And I’m writing a book right now that advocates embracing, not hiding your weaknesses)
- 13 principles for creating an Edge – one at the end of each chapter
- She takes a shot at the Myers Briggs Personality Test. Good for her.
- More advice from Professor Huang: “go for directionality – don’t go for absolutes. You know what the ‘right directions’ and ‘wrong directions’ are.” This is critical. There are too many leaders and entrepreneurs who get stuck on perfection or reaching a bright line and are never able to move forward. Sometimes good enough is good enough. Knowing your values and following them will generate success.