Leaders Live In The Tent of Discontent

by  Tim Milburn  |  Leadership Development

Being content is good. Being discontent is bad.

Have you heard this or felt this way? I have. From an early age, I have been taught that contentment is a noble characteristic. I must learn to be content with what I have, with what I make, and with the circumstances beyond my control. Within that context, being content is good.

But too often, we begin to mistake a sense of contentment with a feeling of comfort. We want to feel comfortable in our place and position in life. We seem to long for the day when we finally arrive. We find that being content looks more and more like being comfortable.

Over time, I’ve discovered the most effective leaders actually possess an underlying perspective of healthy discontent.There is an edginess to them. They might be pleased with what’s going on at the moment, but they are never satisfied. These leaders operate out of a different perspective than the one written at the beginning of this post:

Being content is good. Being discontent is necessary.

When it comes to leadership, a healthy discontent isn’t seen as a negative. Rather, it’s a powerful catalyst for positive change. A leader’s best ideas and greatest energy can come from those moments when he or she is unhappy, frustrated, or angry about the way things are. Leaders learn to use these moments to their advantage. They use them to get curious about the challenges they’re facing. They use them to experiment with new opportunities and solutions. Ultimately, they use their discontent to change something that needs changing.

Leaders are wired to challenge the process (thank you Kouzes & Posner). In fact, a compelling vision of a preferred future is always birthed from a perspective of discontent. A leader’s vision is compass that points a group of people in a certain direction.

At the heart of a compelling vision is the message that we can’t stay here. It grows out of a sense that we cannot become what we need to become by remaining who and where we are right now. Growing too content with present realities can lead to stagnation.

Thus, discontent is a positive perspective for a leader. Discontentment is a challenge that there’s something more. If we allow contentment to evolve into comfort, we won’t do the work to make the necessary changes to get to where we need to go.

A healthy discontent is necessary to move forward. Our growth as people, as teams, and as organizations is often motivated by discontent. It fuels our learning, our experimenting, and our changing.

One more thing. I’ve tried to state the case for healthy discontent. Just like being content can become a quest for comfort, being discontent can quickly spiral into complaining. Healthy discontent leads to changes that move a person or people forward in a positive direction.

Here’s an exercise to help you evaluate your own areas of discontent.

1. Create a list of some things you’re not content with.

2. Pick one thing from the list you would most like to change.

3. Get curious. Identify the various factors that created this situation.

4. Acknowledge your own mistakes and learn from what you uncover.

5. Identify what you need to do differently.

How have you seen discontentment help you change?

Photo credit: Jonas Norling

About The Author

Articles By tim-milburn
Full Bio Coming Soon

What People Are Saying

Catherine-Core Coaching  |  02 Aug 2012  |  Reply

healthy discontent….-nodding-…. great point made here. What compounds the frustration is if, as a leader, you don’t know what the right solution is in order to make the necessary changes. -sigh-

Tim Milburn  |  02 Aug 2012  |  Reply

Thank you for the comment Catherine. Appreciate the affirmation. Sounds like we need another post on how good decision-making has to follow healthy discontent. Sometimes the solution starts with the simple feeling that something needs to change. That’s the key to healthy discontent.

Maze Logic  |  03 Aug 2012  |  Reply

This, was a ridiculously incredible post! It definitely hits home when it comes to the need to move from “here” to “there”.. “Here” must become the hinderance to our journey to “there”. Loved it immensely.

One thing I’d like to ask, how does one navigate this when they aren’t at the ‘level’ of leadership that would initiate this change? Of course this was written for leaders, but does it work at all levels, especially where there’s a culture of high heirarchy and “know your place” mentallity..?

Tim Milburn  |  03 Aug 2012  |  Reply

Thanks Maze. Glad you enjoyed it and hope you find it useful. I think one way we can exercise a level of “healthy discontent” wherever we are at in the organization is by asking a good question. Questions like “What if…?” or “Why?” help us to peel back the layers of our present reality.

The other thing we can do is to encourage healthy discontent in our leader. Begin to plant seeds of a vision that the leader can buy into. Find ways to show the benefits of an ideal future over the status quo of the present reality. Tell him or her to read this post :).

Deborah L. Parker  |  03 Aug 2012  |  Reply


Enjoyed the post, very good! As I read the post, I was constantly applying to my personal growth as as well as in family and other leadership situations. It’s so important to look at the wide range of leadership venues!

Tim Milburn  |  03 Aug 2012  |  Reply

Appreciate the comment Deborah. That was my feeling too as I was writing it. I kept thinking about how my own desire to be content is often a masked ambition to remain comfortable.

One of the principles I write about in my book, Leadership Starts With You, is the Law of the Rubber Band. It simply states: A rubber band is only useful when it’s being stretched. A healthy discontent keeps me stretching.

Jason Biggers  |  04 Aug 2012  |  Reply

What a great topic. Many leaders may not even know how to put their finger on what healthy discontent looks like. “At the heart of a compelling vision is the message that we can’t stay here.” If we all could develop that type of discontent it would compel much more positive action to take place daily.

Tim Milburn  |  05 Aug 2012  |  Reply

Hey Jason. Thank you for the comment. Another thing to consider is when and if the rest of the organization has a higher level of healthy discontent then the leader. That’s one of the necessities of a powerful and compelling vision. It keeps everyone moving in the same direction. If people see the need to move forward, but the leader has grown content (comfortable), all kinds of problems arise. In fact, “the leader” may not actually be the leader anymore.

Denise  |  06 Aug 2012  |  Reply

Thanks for a great articulation of something I’ve lived and thrived with all my life. I am incredibly blessed beyond measure and extremely grateful. Yet, I have always an underlying push… in all areas of my life personally and professionally – nothing crazy but that constant raising of the bar and your post describes why it is necessary as a leader. Thanks for the validation… I’ll be spreading this to my tribe…

Tim Milburn  |  06 Aug 2012  |  Reply

Hi Denise. I’m happy to confirm something you know to be true through your own life. That validates my post as well. Appreciate that. Keep pushing for excellence. Thanks for spreading the word!

Kent Julian  |  06 Aug 2012  |  Reply

Great thoughts here, Tim. I really appreciate your point that healthy discontent can be a powerful catalyst for positive change. So important in effective leadership!

Tim Milburn  |  06 Aug 2012  |  Reply

Thanks Kent. I appreciate the feedback since you live as a powerful catalyst for positive change through your Live It Forward site. Blessings your way!

Kent Julian  |  06 Aug 2012  | 

Tim…thanks for the complement. Greatly appreciated!
On a different note…how do we get our picture to replace the avatar on your site? Would love to show off my beautiful bald head :)

Tim Milburn  |  06 Aug 2012  | 

I don’t know why your avatar image isn’t showing up. It shows up in the “recent comments” section. It’s a mystery.

Join The Conversation