I’ve heard or read the phrase “Leaders are comfortable being uncomfortable” several times now in various different places. The general meaning I get from that phrase is that in order to grow, in order to lead, a person has to be willing to push themselves outside of their so-called “comfort zone.” I think it also has a deeper meaning. To be comfortable being uncomfortable is a fundamental skill for survival – it makes us adaptable – fully human.
When I find myself feeling uncomfortable, I know instinctively that there is something that isn’t fitting into my past experience or threatens my cherished world view. Now I’m not talking here about being frightened or scared. It’s more that reluctance to continue, or that “uncertainty about outcomes” feeling I’m focused on.
David Marquet refers to the “personal struggle” as a leader as learning that s/he has to give up control in order to be in control. That’s way uncomfortable! To our western minds, these dichotomies are hard to grasp. We don’t know how to hold opposites in our minds at the same time. It’s either right or wrong, black or white, comfortable or not comfortable, in control or out of control, leading or following, emotional or logical, etc. Yet life has a way of disabusing us of these quaint, restrictive ways of being in the world. We just choose to ignore the messaging!
So what does it mean to be comfortable being uncomfortable? I can only speak for myself here, so please forgive the personal focus. On a personal level, I am very uncomfortable acknowledging and being fully present to my own feelings, especially when dealing with other people. It’s a deeply ingrained teaching from my youth. You know all the reasons: as a boy, I was taught by the men around me that “BIG boys don’t cry.” I was told, when hurt physically or emotionally, “Oh, that’s nothing. Stop worrying about it and keep going.” In other words, ignore it, stuff it. Later in life, the other men around me taught me that feelings had no place in business. Feelings only confuse and cloud the issue and you will make a wrong decision. People who were emotional about things in the office were belittled – mostly behind their backs, some times cruelly, to their face. Shamefully, I tried to teach my wife that wrong-headed lesson when she went back into the business world after raising our children.
I’m struggling while pushing on this growing edge. I cannot be a whole person when I’m stuffing my emotions down and out of sight and out of mind. You, in interactions with me, don’t see the full person, the full range of concern, passion or fear. Instead you see someone, as my children did growing up, who is either “okay,” or “angry” with not much range of emotion in between. How sad is that?
In certain safe places, I am allowing myself to connect with, to experience and more importantly to show my feelings. It’s hard and uncomfortable in the extreme, and I am immensely grateful to my group for providing such a safe and non-judgmental space. There are precious few places where I can allow myself the “luxury” of dropping my “I’m a man” mask and weep with joy or sadness. Outside of those safe places, you may never have a chance to see anything even close to the authentic, full person I know myself to be. Again I say, “How sad is that?” If I were more authentic “in public,” would you be more or less comfortable around me? What does your answer suggest about where you are with respect to stereotypes about “how men should be?”
When it comes to being uncomfortable with change and new situations, I have never had to struggle. I’m one of those weird people who rather likes change; I initiate change. Others seem incapacitated when faced with change in location, processes, markets and other things of our invention. I view embracing change, being an “early adopter” as one of my strengths. (Sometimes, overused and thus a weakness!)
So when I hear or read the phrase “Leaders are comfortable being uncomfortable,” a whole host of meaning floods my brain. It’s more than being able to accept and initiate change in how we do things. It’s more than being able to embrace a newer, bigger vision. It’s more than simply playing a bigger game. All of those are certainly important parts of being a leader. For me, the challenge and deeper meaning is being willing to be authentic in the world. To be your own person. To make visible, as much as possible, your whole person. To be comfortable being uncomfortable means to be willing to be fully present and fully transparent. If you achieve that state then you will be truly a leader with, not of, other leaders.