What Transformational Leaders Learn From Their Darkest Moments

Greg Satell
5 min readJul 4, 2020
Image: Wikimedia Commons

We tend to think of transformational leaders emerging fully actualized. We look for early indications of promise, sure that there must have been nascent signs of greatness from the start. It’s hard to imagine those that attain the highest level of achievement are anything less than destined for greatness.

While talent clearly plays an important role in success, most talented people live their lives without any great distinction. Some attain some moderate level of achievement, but simply go unnoticed. Others even fail miserably. A few hit on the right mix of luck, skill, time and place that catapults them to greatness.

What’s interesting about the stories behind so many of those of remarkable achievement is how they often begin with heartbreaking tales of desperation and failure. Yet, those failures didn’t define their path. In fact, very much the opposite. It is what they learned from their early struggles and failures that helped make them the historic figures we know today.

The Prelude To A Miracle Year

When we think of Albert Einstein, we inevitably conjure up images of the icon rather than the man. We see Einstein with his wild hair and his tongue sticking out or Einstein as a playful old man, riding a bicycle. We remember his cheerful confidence and his easy comfort with his own genius. He wasn’t always that way.

The younger Einstein, the one who actually came up with the ideas that established his place in history rather than the world famous scientist he became, was far different. Reeling from chronic unemployment and a troubled marriage, he fell into a deep depression, became nearly suicidal and wrote to his sister in a letter:

What depresses me most is the misfortune of my poor parents who have not had a happy moment for so many years. What further hurts me deeply is that as an adult man, I have to look on without being able to do anything. I am nothing but a burden to my family…It would be better off if I were not alive at all.

His father would pass away a few years later. By that time, the young Albert Einstein did find work as a lowly government clerk. Soon after, in 1905, he unleashed four papers in quick succession that would change…

Greg Satell

Co-Founder: ChangeOS | Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Wharton Lecturer,@HBR Contributor, - Learn more at www.GregSatell.com