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Leadership is Just Uncomfortable

By Randy Hall

I feel like I hear “the phrase” more and more as I work with teams and leaders.  It’s a little phrase that gets in the way, a lot. It gets in the way of progress and growth.  And it gets in the way of the future. It’s not always a bad thing to say. In fact, there are times when it’s appropriate and real and should be listened to.  However, there are many more times when it needs to be discarded, called out for the roadblock that it is, and banished from our thinking.  

Here’s an example of a time I heard “the phrase”:  

Recently, I was working with someone in a veterinary practice and they developed a minor conflict with another team member.  I asked them the same question I always ask when someone describes a conflict with a team member, “Have you talked to them about this issue?”  And then “the phrase” made its appearance: “I don’t feel comfortable doing that.” It’s gotten to the point where I can feel myself cringe a bit when I hear this phrase.  I need to work on that. I cringe because there seems to be an implied belief that we should feel comfortable.  

Growth is not comfortable.  Learning is not comfortable.  Leadership is not comfortable.  In fact, none of these things should be comfortable.  Think of three things in your world that you are proud of accomplishing.  Would you describe achieving any of them as comfortable?

More and more it seems as if we have come to believe that discomfort, even on a small scale, is a bad thing and should be avoided at all costs.  Discomfort gives us the justification to avoid having a needed conversation with a teammate, suggesting a new idea in a meeting, or telling our boss they aren’t communicating clearly.  It shouldn’t be allowed to stand in the way of a better future.

Comfort should be recognized for what it is

Comfort is about the past - the things we are used to, are familiar with, and already do well.  There must be some of that in our world, for balance, if nothing else. But comfort should be recognized for what it is; comfort is a safe place, a relaxed environment, and a respite from the chaos.  Comfort is something we retreat to, not something we aspire to.

Now, when I’m in a situation and hear, “I don’t feel comfortable doing that,” I ask provocative questions designed to create insight around the concept of comfort.  Questions such as:

  •         Why do you want to be comfortable?
  •         Why should a tough conversation feel comfortable?
  •         Why should giving honest feedback be comfortable?
  •         If you had to choose between progress and comfort, which would you pick?
  •         If it’s the right thing to do, but it’s uncomfortable, how should you move forward?

We should all have times of comfort.  Humans are designed with a need to recharge, relax, and let their mind wander stress-free without discomfort.  But discomfort is part of the improvement process. And improvement is how things get better and more comfortable.  We will never make a difference, have an impact on others, or accomplish anything hard if we are always asking, “What is most comfortable?”

Leadership is often about doing the uncomfortable thing for the right reasons.  Leaders acknowledge the discomfort and still move forward. We need more people in the world who are comfortable being uncomfortable.  Embrace it. Enjoy it. Rush headlong into it. Lead.