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August 22, 2018

Conscious Leaders Embrace Pain

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One of the differentiating qualities of conscious leaders is their relationship to pain. They value it; they don’t avoid it, deny it or run from it. In another Going Deeper, I talked about the change formula and the power of vision. Now let’s explore the power of pain.

Again, the change formula is

(V X D) + F.S. > R = C.

Motivation to change comes from V (vision) and D (dissatisfaction with the status quo). Dissatisfaction is a synonym for pain. In my experience, most people need pain to change. Very few people change simply because they have a picture of a preferable future.

We see this in much of the modern theory of change. The whole idea of a “burning platform” (Kotter, Leading Change) is that the platform is burning. The idea is that if we don’t do something we’ll fail. Pain is coming, change now. This is what creates a sense of urgency that Kotter and many others believe is necessary for real change.

Most of us know this intuitively and experientially. We know the value of pain, the necessity of discomfort, and yet, we avoid it. If we dig a bit deeper what we discover is that we allow and tolerate a certain amount of pain, but before the discomfort gets to the level where change is imminent we do something to avoid, numb or manage the pain.

For example:

We feel discomfort in our relationship with a coworker. It’s not working. At times conflict and drama break through the facade of political politeness. We can tolerate this much discomfort, but if we had an authentic, real, honest, vulnerable conversation all hell might break loose. The relationship might end or, even worse, not end, but become more dysfunctional. Rather than fully face the possibility of real pain and discomfort we manage ourselves, the other person and the relationship. We keep our discomfort at the acceptable level, just below the level that would create real change, by avoiding a candid conversation.  


We sense that we’re on the verge of burnout. We’ve had the pedal to the metal for a long time. It hurts, we’re tired, our family is fed up with our excuses. Discomfort is here, but not enough discomfort for us to really face, feel and deal with the core issues that have been driving us for so long. Instead of sitting still and going deeper in self awareness we pour a glass of wine, fire up netflix and mindlessly numb out on social media. We manage the discomfort, we bring it into the acceptable, tolerable range.

We all have a version of this experience. Some tolerable discomfort followed by denial, distraction and staying stuck. We need pain to change and yet we avoid it.

One of terms we use at the Conscious Leadership Group for this pattern is drifting (a term we got from Drs Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks,The Hendricks Institute.) A drift is something we’re doing other than living on purpose and facing, feeling and dealing with our lives at the deepest and most authentic level. Take a look at this drift list and see if you can identify your most common drifts; ways to fully face the discomfort and pain that is running just below the surface; the pain that, if fully embraced, would create real, lasting change in your life, team or company.


Try this assignment we give to our coaching clients:

  1. Circle your 3-5 most common drifts.  
  2. Make an agreement with yourself and a trusted friend or partner to put yourself on a drift diet by agreeing to abstinence or limited use around one of your identified drifts for a week (or a month if you’re really committed to facing issues you’ve been avoiding).
  3. When the impulse comes to drift (check email, shop, watch TV, smoke a joint, exercise (yes, exercise can be a drift)) don’t do it, but rather sit in the discomfort. Literally sit, stand still, stay in the pain a little longer.
  4. See what comes up when you face, feel and deal with what it is you’ve been avoiding. Usually, there is a deeper dissatisfaction that you’ve only imagined and haven’t yet experienced. Stay in it until the pain really shows up. Notice sensations in the body, emotions that arise, uncomfortable thoughts. Allow yourself to be with these experiences as much as you are willing by adding breath. You may also want to add some movement to support yourself feeling.

In our experience, this pain is a tremendous gift. It shows us some place in our lives where we are out of alignment, out of integrity, not fully alive, not facing something that needs to faced, not fully feeling something that needs to be felt. It point us to a choice, a deep and powerful choice that is inviting us to real and lasting change. Conscious leaders embrace this pain, avoid the drifts and make the change.

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