Leading in the Discomfort Zone

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For most people the word, “discomfort,” conjures up a physical sensation—a slight sick feeling in the stomach, a disorienting unease, an accelerating heart rate. Whatever is happening, chances are, it doesn’t feel good. Life is about to get complicated, firing up signals that say, “Uh-oh.”

What does this mean? It can mean a lot of things. Ruling out physical danger, you find yourself in a situation where the outcome matters, and you don’t know what that outcome is.  Worse, you are not in control, sort of like watching the current national news.

We have been witnessing an era of stupefying change, disruption beyond our imagination, and diffusion of purpose.  Whether it is the politics of regime change, discarding of customary norms, or the cracking open of social taboos that have long gone unpunished, we find ourselves increasingly perplexed.

For most people, dealing with today’s shape shifting environment occurs closer to home. Disconcerting as it can be, for people in leadership roles and other purveyors of change, it has provided them with an opening to flex their muscles, clear their brains, and concentrate on the opportunities right in front of them. That is, if they are willing to go toward rather away from their discomfort.

Discomfort is the essence of change

Discomfort lies at the root of the new. To try out a new idea, you have to let go of managing all the details and allow things to happen. For many, releasing control is so terrifying that they resist it at all costs. At the same time, it represents a key characteristic of leadership.

Three Leadership Lessons from 500 CEOs

Over a ten year period, Adam Bryant of The New York Times, interviewed 500 CEOs across diverse industries.  He made open-ended inquiries about their respective evolutions into leadership, recruitment of talent, and strategies for getting the best ideas and performance from people.

In 2017, he concluded his project. While reviewing ten years of interview notes, he surfaced three essential themes among these executives:

  1. They demonstrated an “applied curiosity,” tending to question everything.
  2. They loved a challenge. “Discomfort is their comfort zone.” As one banking executive said, “Usually, I really like whatever the problem is. I like to get close to the fire.”
  3. They focused on the doing their current job, rather than a future job.  Promotions grew out of a job well done.

The first and third themes seem relatively attainable. Applied curiosity may be a question of DNA. It also can arise by seeking an intellectually alive community. Focusing on one’s current job rather than at a future role calls for behaviors an executive can choose to adopt.  By committing to hard work, focus, and continuous acquisition of skills, a leader can optimize his or her chances for progressing to a new role.

The Challenge of the Discomfort Zone

The second theme, seeing discomfort as a comfort zone, poses challenges for many. While there are those who thrive on change, most would rather avoid it. Discomfort is, well, uncomfortable, because that is where uncertainty and unknown outcomes reside. To combat it, professional management places a great deal of emphasis on overcoming stress, making order out of chaos, and settling down the troops, to the relief of those around them.

And yet, as said by the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, “In difficult times the stress of trying to find solid ground – something predictable and safe to stand on – seems to intensify. But in truth, the very nature of our existence is forever in flux. Everything keeps changing, whether we’re aware of it or not.”

In other words, there are no fixed points in life. In order to meet life as it is, we need not to be fixed in our ways.  If we are trying to escape the fundamental uncertainty of life, we are filling up time and space to avoid being present, to the detriment of our expansion.

Chodron approaches overcoming people’s avoidance of the discomfort with a Buddhist mindset. That works well for some. For others, modern days call for modern methodologies. To succeed in business and in life, one needs first to recognize that little gets done without the participation of other humans. Humans by their very nature, come loaded with unpredictability. That provides us with both challenges and gifts.

Embracing Discomfort to Pursue Opportunities

Rather than fighting the nature of human beings, trying to weigh and measure the behavior of team members, customers, and competitors, a wise leader accepts that the only thing they really can control is their willingness to keep an open channel to what is happening around them. Then they can learn, invent, and participate in the flow of whatever happens next.

We can’t individually push back the current tsunami of political intrigue. We can access our core beliefs and invest our energy in the people and ideas that give us meaning. Here are some recent examples:

  • Teachers in West Virginia accessed their strong beliefs that education is of premier importance to our society, warranting fair pay. It emboldened them to leave the front of their classrooms to go protest for long denied pay raises. Teachers in other school districts are following suit.
  • High school students in Parkland, Florida drew strength from their deep loyalty to fallen classmates to galvanize a nationwide protest for gun safety.
  • In the last year I have witnessed the CEOs of several companies move out of their operations orientations to open ended initiatives in order to build organizations where respect for community, diversity, and the yearn to learn informs their strategies, rather than the reverse.

All of these people had to leave their comfort zones to meet the disruption of change that was taking place in front of them.

The Promise of the Discomfort of the New

The discomfort zone offers a powerful place to build the future, if you choose to enter it. The reward is the value you bring to your organizations and yourself.

#Leadership #DiscomfortZone #LeadingChange

© 2018, Julie Benezet. All rights reserved.

JulieBenezet.com

1 Comment

  1. This is wonderful Julie: “In other words, there are no fixed points in life. In order to meet life as it is, we need not to be fixed in our ways. If we are trying to escape the fundamental uncertainty of life, we are filling up time and space to avoid being present, to the detriment of our expansion.” You have staked out this space about leadership and the existentialist reality that we live in a chaotic world, with a dash of Darwinian advice to change and adapt. Your book, seminars and blog articles are a deep dive into the human reality of people and organizational life that is refreshing and vital. Bravo!

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