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Leadership: Comfort Zone or Danger Zone?

Years ago when I took up my first leadership role my boss asked me a question. “Why do you want to be a manager?” I was puzzled, this seemed like an obvious next step change in my career. He then said “do you see this as you’ve earned this, it’s your time, or is it about responsibility, to the organisation to the people you will lead?”. That was a kicker of a question which got me really thinking about my ‘why’ of wanting to take that role. Now years on, having led a number of teams with the scars and wins that go with that I think it’s the same question that we should put to all leaders, be they emerging or experienced.

Often people go into leadership for the wrong reasons. They have a preconceived notion of what it is to be a leader – is it a reward or a responsibility? Do they get there and say “yaay I’ve arrived, now I can relax” or do they say “now I have to work harder and do more difficult things than I’ve ever had to do.”

I read something recently that suggested that one reason that people move into leadership & management is power “I get to give the orders”, “I get to tell other people what to do”, “I don’t have to do the shitty stuff any more, I can delegate that”. Equally they may see it as reward “I made it, I earned this” (cue inner voice, now I can sit back & relax!). In other words they hope they will be able to pass on the tough dangerous conflict stuff.

Patrick Lencioni, author of the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, is brutally honest about what it means to be a leader.

  • Think about why you want to be a leader. Is it about reward or responsibility? If it’s about reward you shouldn’t be a leader.
  • Do you think your life is going to get easier or harder? Lencioni suggests half of new CEO’s say “now I’m in charge I can skip that. Someone else can do that.”
  • Being a leader you cannot afford to avoid discomfort, being a leader is uncomfortable; every day you are going to do things that if had a choice you would rather not; you are going to have to have a difficult conversation with people; you are going to have to raise at an issue at a meeting you don’t want to; front up to unhappy customers
  • Lencioni suggests that if you want to avoid discomfort, want to go home comfortable and relaxed rather than tired, if you are not willing to enter the danger zone your team and organisation is going to unravel

I get it. Telling people things they don’t want to hear is hard. You don’t want to hurt their feelings, they may not like you, may not appreciate you. You don’t want to be the bad guy.

Take this scenario. The boss who won’t front up to someone, who won’t have a conflict conversation. They may brush off the suggestion that they need to address it with the person with “I don’t have time for this, I’m way too busy”. In reality that conversation may take less than in a minute. In reality their avoidance is not about work pressure it’s about avoidance of a difficult conversation, avoidance of conflict. We see that happening every day.

We need to turn this around from dangerous conflict to productive conflict. A leader who has put in the hard work to building a team with high trust that is comfortable with conflict won’t back off from that difficult conversation. Because of this. The other person working in that environment will know that the purpose of the feedback is to produce the best possible solution for the team. Their ego will not get in the way of hearing the feedback and acting on it.

Being comfortable with giving and receiving negative feedback, being comfortable with the conflict, is required in order to grow. In the absence of productive conflict you get artificial harmony in a team. That leads to lack of buy-in and accountability. Over time the organisation results speak for themselves.

So if you’re a leader or thinking of making the jump to leadership then have a tough conversation with yourself. Why are you doing this? Are you prepared to step out of your comfort zone and into the danger zone?

As a Leader: Success begins where your comfort zone ends.

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