How to suffer less as a leader

Have you ever wondered how some leaders are able to ‘read the landscape’ – almost as if they have a crystal ball – and elegantly adjust by reinventing themselves, innovating new ideas, and meeting new market needs?

When life happens and things tip on their head – a merger, a restructure, a new CEO, a new project – how is it that some people are able to navigate the struggle and challenge, whilst others just spin their wheels, devolving into pointless circles or collapsing under the pressure?

In my professional and personal life, I’ve experienced ups and downs, challenges and opportunities, joy and sadness. Some of these I handled better than others, some I survived more intact than others, and some helped me learn and grow in ways that enabled me to thrive.


I’ve come to realise it’s because whilst I experienced struggle through many of them, for some of them I chose to suffer too.

The Benefits of Struggle

It can be easy to assume that all struggles lead to suffering, but this isn’t necessarily true.

Have you ever learned something valuable from getting it wrong?

When you look back at your most important lessons in life, have some (perhaps most?) come from times when you were challenged? When you were really pushed to your limits?

Yup, me too.

Research by The Wellbeing Lab found that thriving and struggle often go hand in hand. This is backed up by research by Dr Adam Fraser, who found that if we see struggle as a threat because we fear we might make a mistake, fail, or be exposed as incompetent, we focus on trying to avoid struggle or blame others. In contrast, when we see struggle as a challenge and focus on the growth opportunities it offers, we are more likely to strive, evolve, and be innovative.

Learning to thrive through challenge and change and being in some way ‘better’ from the experience is central to the idea of Becoming Antifragile.

The Option to Suffer

Whilst struggle may be an inevitable part of life, suffering is entirely optional.

Suffering is the inability to accept what is. It is the pain and distress we feel when we encounter difficulties; the emotional and physical discomfort that we experience when things don’t go as planned. When the reality in front of us doesn’t meet our expectations, suffering begins.

And this is why suffering is not a consequence of struggle; it is a choice about how we experience it.

“People suffer because they are caught in their views. As soon as we release those views, we are free and we don’t suffer anymore.”  Thich Nacht Hahn

There’s a fine line between struggling and suffering, but it’s one that we can avoid crossing if we are aware of our internal dialogue , when we are in resistance to the reality in front of us and choose another path.

And that’s because suffering is self-generated and self-perpetuating, which means it can also be self-correcting.

Perhaps you recognize yourself in some of these situations:

  • Struggling: “I didn’t do a great job of presenting in that Board meeting, I need to put in some time and practice more for the next one.’
  • Suffering: “I’m such an imposter. How can I lead my team well when I can’t even communicate effectively?”
  • Struggling: “Well, there were some surprising comments in that performance review. I’ll need to consider those and maybe have another conversation in a week or so.”
  • Suffering: “I’m not surprised they gave me negative feedback I know they never liked me”

As you can see, staying in resistance to reality and personalising the challenge in front of us is what can cause us to suffer. But be in no doubt, if you choose to suffer it makes your experience of life and leading harder than it needs to be.

So, if life is defined by the choices we make, then choosing to lean in and learn from struggle, accept reality and avoid suffering could be what a good life looks like.

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