If You’re Not Uncomfortable, You’re Not Leading

What practice makes for being an effective leader?

Not avoiding actions that make you uncomfortable.

To be a productive and persuasive leader, you have to do that which makes you uncomfortable. Then you do it again and again until you feel comfortable doing it. You may never come to like giving negative performance feedback or making staff reductions, but you still do it with tact and grace. You develop a comfort level with your discomfort. Capable, inspirational leaders repeat the getting-comfortable-with-discomfort process with every item on their personal and professional development list.

“If you’re not uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader.” ~ Seth Godin, author

A friend says he always knows when someone in his work department has messed up—everyone receives an email from the boss reminding them to start, stop or continue doing a particular thing. Their boss is notorious for not dealing with performance issues head-on. He indulges his comfort zone and short-changes developing his employees.

“The comfort zone is a behavioral state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviors to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk.” ~ Alasdair A.K. White, management theorist

Being stuck in that “steady level of performance” has its benefits and disadvantages. On the plus side, there’s consistency and safety. On the minus side, there’s lack of growth, no improvement, and probably a few incorrect assumptions. Boredom, too.

Finding the intersection of comfort and growth

Back in 1908, research from Harvard psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson demonstrated a “Goldilocks too much, too little, just right” correlation between performance and mental or physiological arousal. Effective leadership requires finding an ever-flexing optimal level of anxiety. Too much leads to danger or chaos. Too little yields being safely stuck in complacency and the status quo.

A just-right amount of short-term stress helps us learn, grow, and make better choices. “Working right around the edge really helps you learn and progress,” notes Erik Dane, a professor at Rice University. If your goal is to lead others, you have to first lead yourself, and doing that requires embracing a measure of discomfort. Comfort and conformity are augmented with discomfort and differences.

“The heights charm us, but the steps do not; with the mountains in our view we love to walk the plains.” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, writer and statesman

5 uncomfortable questions to ask yourself

If you feel that you’ve became a bit too comfortable in your current leadership practices, reflect on your answers to these five questions. Better yet, share them with a colleague and listen with your head and heart to what he or she has to say.

  • Do I accept what is offered or do I ask for more?
  • Do I accept conformity because it’s the easy way out or do I push boundaries and challenge assumptions to make the playing field level for all?
  • Do I use the words “or, but, and no” frequently or do I use “and, let’s give it a try, and yes” regularly?
  • Do I focus only on my strengths or do I invite others to help me see my blind spots so I can be better?
  • Do I believe my positions and answers are always the right ones or do I welcome diversity of thought, opinion, and perspective?

Risk exists in identifying comfort zone weaknesses, habits, biases, and instincts, but so do rewards.

How have you learned to find the leadership magic that sits outside your comfort zone?

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