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July 6, 2016

Going Deeper with The 15 Commitments: Conscious Leaders Embrace Discomfort

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When we lead from below the line we are leading from either victim, villain or hero. When we lead from presence we shift from victim to creator, from villain to challenger or from hero to coach. One of the main differences between hero leadership and coach leadership is our relationship to discomfort.

Heros try to get rid of discomfort, pain, difficulty and upset. Coaches know the value of pain and discomfort … theirs and others.

Recently I facilitated an executive team offsite. During the session one of the team members shared about his sense of overwhelm. He had been going nonstop for several months with almost no breaks. All their effort hadn’t moved the needle as much as they would have liked. They were exhausted, stressed out and frustrated. They were experiencing life as a victim and seeing themselves as “at the effect” of their circumstances. Their clients “didn’t get it.” Their team “wasn’t giving their all” and they were encountering “headwinds” that seemed insurmountable.

Everyone on the executive team deeply respects this leader and sees him as a top performer. When they heard him speak they immediately jumped into hero mode. Remember, heros seek temporary relief. When someone is in victim, unconscious leaders step in to hero almost automatically. What this looked like was offering lots of suggestions and resources to try to make the leader’s overwhelm go away:

  • “Have you tried a more direct conversation with the client?”  
  • “I think you should fire Ramon. He’s clearly not pulling his weight.”
  • “Take a vacation man. You need some time off.”
  • “How about if we allocate more resources to you and your group?”
  • “Let’s go get a beer later today. You could use a drink and so could I.”

What was going on was that the team wanted to make the leader’s discomfort, pain and stress go away. What they said was that they wanted to help. What they were missing was the value of discomfort.

As humans we are wired for empathic connection and caring. Compassion from open-hearted connection is a great characteristic of conscious leaders. When someone we care about hurts we naturally want to make that hurt go away. This “natural” response is the one conscious leaders catch in themselves and choose to shift.

Conscious leaders know from experience that most real transformation requires pressure. A seed requires the pressure of dirt to sprout. A newborn requires the pressure of contractions to come into the world. Coaches know that discomfort, pain, struggle and upset can be that pressure that transforms and they don’t rush in to remove it. Sitting with people while they hurt and staying with people through their hurt is one thing great coaches do really well. They care, they connect from their heads and their hearts, but they don’t rescue. They don’t try to relieve the discomfort and pain. They know that pressure is designed to support a victim to shift from being “at the effect of” to taking 100% responsibility and stepping into creator.  

So rather than offering heroing suggestions to reduce the immediate suffering, conscious leaders would ask questions that might illuminate the issue more clearly, like: "Is this pattern familiar," or "How did you help create this overwhelm?" A conscious leader might even seek to sharpen up the issue and discomfort by calling it out more specifically by saying things like "yeah, I have noticed how much stress you and the team seem to be under," or "Yes, I hear that you want a change here. What are you going to do about it?" or "Tell us how costly this situation has been to you and your team." The important thing is that a coaching leader seeks to get to the root cause of the issue not offer temporary relief. Many times this is the exact opposite of our instinctual reaction to suffering. And my experience is this leads to the more effective and permanent change — thus permanently eliminating a cause of suffering. 

Before a conscious leader does or says anything they pause and check to see where they are about to act or speak from. If they are about to come from hero in an attempt to fix, help, change, correct, or improve another they stop. They take responsibility for their own consciousness (rescuing from hero) and they welcome their own discomfort and the discomfort of the other person. 

They listen deeply, hold space for exploration and let the pressure of discomfort do what it is meant to do—produce transformation. [Tweet]

From our experience, this is definitely a “going deeper” practice for conscious leaders.

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