Life and Leadership Outside Your Comfort Zone

How to lead better when facing difficult or uncomfortable circumstances.

No leader can prevent challenges, criticism or things that don’t go as planned. But mature leaders can control how they respond.

I often hear executives in our leadership development programs share a sentiment like this: “Leadership is hard work, and it’s often uncomfortable!”

Sometimes, the executives even arrive at a notion like this: “If I knew then what I know now, I’d have had second thoughts about taking on my leadership role.”

No matter how high up the ladder you climb, leadership frequently knocks you out of your comfort zone!

What can and should you do when you find yourself there?

Difficult decisions, inevitable criticism

Leaders today operate in what U.S. military educators – and some management observers – call a “VUCA” world. Their organizations are part of a global marketplace of escalating volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. VUCA conditions mean taking a leadership role in any organization is not for the fainthearted. Determination is especially needed by leaders tasked with growing an organization rapidly or steering it in a new direction.

VUCA conditions require leaders to make difficult and unpopular decisions and to have hard conversations with people they care about.

Nearly every organization is experiencing VUCA with no relief in sight, so leaders must learn how to manage their responses to all of the second-guessing and criticism they will inevitably receive. Leaders who can’t manage how they respond to those criticisms will be less effective than leaders who can.

Don’t just expect difficult times; welcome them

Leaders need to plan for, accept and welcome the difficult times, the opposing points of view and the criticism. How? By managing how you respond to everything that is thrown your way.

Leaders can prepare in two areas: what to do and how to be.

The first area – “what to do” – involves the competencies required to be an effective leader, especially in times of turmoil. These competencies include, but are not limited to, creating a future vision for the company, designing the processes and systems to support that vision and ensuring long-term profitability. These are things you learn in business school.

The second area – “how to be” – involves behaviors required to be an effective leader. These include the organizational culture you develop, how you communicate and the way you hold people accountable for executing the vision you have established.

The “how to be” area is much more difficult to cultivate and sustain. Yet it is the very area that needs your attention if you are going to thrive. In short, this is about developing your leadership maturity.  

You develop as a leader when you are repeatedly forced out of your comfort zone by business challenges. These learning experiences test a leader’s limits and force her or him to develop new skills to be successful in times of stress and discomfort.

Unfortunately, rather than embrace these difficult situations, reflect on them and learn from them, most leaders scamper as quickly as they can back to their comfort zones to nervously await the arrival of the next difficult situation.

In the end, leadership is still difficult and often uncomfortable. This is the essence of leadership. However, the more you build your leadership maturity, the more comfortable you become with being uncomfortable. 

A Three-Part Action Plan for Leadership Maturity

PART 1: Cultivate a growth mindset

First and foremost, you need to change your mindset about challenging situations. This means taking the time to recognize the potential that difficult and uncomfortable situations have to teach you about yourself, your areas of strength and areas where you could be stronger.

A key to changing your mindset is shifting how you regard criticisms. Reframe them from being negative to being constructive.

Earlier in this article, I intentionally used the term “criticism” for a purpose. Did you cringe when reading the word? Or were you thinking that you, as a leader, should not view criticism as negative but rather as useful feedback?

If you thought the latter, congratulations! This demonstrates a desirable level of leadership maturity.

If not, no worries. We’re all on the journey of developing our leadership maturity, and this is an indication you have more leadership power within you to unleash.   

PART 2: Study past challenges

Another step to building leadership maturity is to examine and find the value in earlier experiences.

Think about a leadership experience that involved stress, discomfort and adversity. For example, perhaps you had an important team conversation that went astray and produced undesirable consequences. Maybe you led an interdepartmental meeting that did not go the way you intended and left your team frustrated.

Using that scenario, follow these steps: Describe the situation in writing, using complete sentences. Be as specific and detailed as possible. Use the written description to answer these questions in this exact order. Keep the focus on yourself, not the other people involved.

  1. What was the specific unintended result you got from that situation? For example, “My team walked away feeling resentful.”
  2. What specific behavior did you engage in that contributed to that result? For example, “I got defensive in the meeting and said some things I now regret.”
  3. What emotions were you experiencing that led to that behavior? For example, “I was feeling angry and frustrated.”
  4. What is your belief that created those emotions? For example, “I believed my team was not accepting my great ideas.”
  5. Focusing on the belief you had, what is at least one alternative belief that places the responsibility for what happened directly on you? For example, “My team had ideas of their own I didn’t fully listen to and consider.”
    This is one of the hardest and most uncomfortable parts of developing a high level of leadership maturity. Shifting the responsibility for negative outcomes from others to yourself is critical not only because your job, as a leader, is to create a positive outcome, but also because your actions are the only ones you can control.
  6. By answering the above questions, what have you learned about yourself that can prevent you from being an effective leader? For example, “I don’t listen to others as well as I should. They also have great ideas.”
  7. How could your leadership maturity (i.e., “how to be”) improve by adjusting this aspect of yourself? What could you change about yourself that would help you as a leader? For example, “Become a better listener so I hear ideas that are different from my own.”

After completing the last of the seven questions, reflect on and analyze your answers. Were you:

  • Too assertive?
  • Too accommodating?
  • Too analytical? 

In the “for example” responses above, that leader was being too assertive in the situation she’s looking back on. By not listening to others’ ideas, she comes off as autocratic to her team, and they may often feel resentful toward her. 

PART 3: Identify self-sabotaging patterns

Leaders may be too assertive in one challenging situation, too accommodating in another and too analytical in yet another. However, almost all leaders have at least one problematic tendency they exhibit frequently at times when they are pushed out of their comfort zones.

The irony is that when this happens, leaders can react in ways that sabotage their own efforts to be successful. Thus, I refer to them as self-sabotaging patterns.

Comparing the typical beliefs the patterns begin with, the emotions those beliefs evoke and the self-sabotaging behaviors those emotions cause is a way to recognize them in yourself. Just being aware of your self-sabotaging tendencies by determining your most probable pattern will help you reduce them.

For an even greater impact, you need to develop strategies for avoiding those self-sabotaging behaviors. As you do this, don’t expect your negative emotions to totally disappear. Rather, you’ll find yourself managing those uncomfortable emotions differently and using them as guideposts to better manage your actions as a leader.

The Three Self-Sabotaging Patterns

Keep in mind these descriptions are just to help you identify patterns you may recognize while evaluating yourself. They are not hard-and-fast criteria.

Too Assertive

Belief: It is desirable to be perceived as in control and perfect.

Emotion: Anger and frustration emerge when you are not being perceived the desired way. 

Self-Sabotaging Behavior: Being so driven and ambitious that your assertiveness might be perceived as abrasive and autocratic. 

Too Accommodating

Belief: It is desirable to be perceived as pleasing and likable.

Emotion: Anxiety and worry emerge when you are not being perceived the desired way. 

Self-Sabotaging Behavior: Being so conservative and passive in an effort to please others that your accommodation might be perceived as unassuming and weak. 

Too Analytical

Belief: It is desirable to be perceived as rational and logical.   

Emotion: Fear emerges when you are not being perceived the desired way. 

Self-Sabotaging Behavior: Being so critical and logical in an effort to demonstrate rationality that your analytical focus might be perceived as arrogant and egotistical.  

By Steve Swavely, Ph.D.
Illustration by Pep Montserrat

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