Leaders Live In The Tent of Discontent

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

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