In Authentic Leadership

Imagine attending a meeting where you know you will be unpopular, distrusted, and even heckled. Would you choose to do it? Not many of us would.  That’s exactly what General Keith Alexander, National Security Agency (NSA) Chief chose to do this month at the Black Hat corporate security conference.  He was heckled by the crowd for some of the tactics employed by the NSA in encroaching on privacy.  He was asked why his agency lied to the U.S. Congress.  Regardless of our point of view on the topic, the leadership question I found myself asking was “Would I have shown up? How much heat am I willing to take to lead?

Leadership requires being willing to stand up, to be counted, to show up in the face of criticism. As leaders, one of the toughest people we need to manage is ourselves.  As human beings, the fact is, we are conditioned to avoid discomfort.  Got to deliver bad news or negative feedback? “Yeah, I’ll do that tomorrow”. Got to fire someone? “Well perhaps HR can do that”. Have to own up to a mistake or failure? “Well, it wasn’t that big. Maybe no one will notice.” Need to make a decision that is unpopular? “Well, perhaps if we just compromise some more?”

What happens when we don’t learn how to manage through our own discomfort? Crucial conversations don’t happen. We lose connection with customers and our people.  Errors and failure perpetuate. People are confused. Cultures start to stink up.

Here are five steps I have used to learn how to manage through my own discomfort:

1)     Take an inventory – Each one of us experiences discomfort in different situations. Think back and make a quick list of situations that make you uncomfortable.  For me, it’s potential conflict situations. I tend to be an agreeable sort of person, keep everyone happy, world peace and all of that. What’s that for you?

2)      Discover your natural reactions – When you experience discomfort what happens? What are your physical reactions to discomfort?  Some people tend to get sweaty palms.  Others try to diffuse the situation by laughing or talking too much.  Just pay attention to when you experience discomfort and notice what you tend to do. Do you avoid it? Do you try to deflect it? Do you delay it?

3)      Get curious – Our discomfort is generally rooted in fears. Start to ask yourself “what is the fear underneath this discomfort?” Fears are based on certain mindsets and assumptions we have.  When we avoid giving “bad news” to others or having difficult conversations our fears may be fears of rejection.  Once we name the fear, we can actually see the mindset underneath. For example, “I have a hard time giving negative feedback because my fear is that the other person may dislike me.”

4)      Reframe the mindset – Ask yourself “what is a belief that will help me do what’s right rather than what’s comfortable?” Find an alternate mindset to help you lessen the discomfort.  For each fear you identify, create a more empowering belief to enable you to do what’s right. For example, “Constructive feedback allows me to better connect with the person”.

5)      Just do it and declare success – Sometimes you just have to take the plunge. Redefine success as having a difficult conversation and learning from it – regardless of what the outcome may be.

A funny thing happens when we start to push through despite our discomfort.  We become better at it.  As we become better at staying with discomfort we, we expand our personal power in leading ourselves and others.

I would welcome your comments and suggestions on how you manage through your own discomfort.

A version of this post first appeared on my blog.

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Henna Inam - Professional Photo - ColorThis article was written by Henna Inam, CEO of Transformational Leadership Inc.  Her company works with organizations to help women realize their potential to be authentic, transformational leaders. Her clients drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth, and engagement. Her corporate clients include Coca Cola, UPS, Novartis, J&J, and others who know female leadership talent is good for business. To accelerate your own growth connect with her here. Connect on Twitter @hennainam.



Showing 3 comments
  • Ron Chapman

    All good tips, Henna! Well said and well framed. The only thing I can add is that the real magic for me came about as a result of deliberately putting myself in those uncomfortable situations and willingly learning to sit with my discomfort. It turns out that’s the real issue. If I can’t be with my own discomfort, there is no way to stand in the face of adversity. I’ll also add that once I found a sense of ease despite being uncomfortable, the ability to see things through has only increased. Pretty cool! A bit counter cultural though. After all, everyone knows we should always remedy discomfort. (Tongue in cheek!)

    • Henna Inam

      Thanks for your wisdom on this Ron! You’re right. The more comfortable we get with being with our discomfort, the greater our ability to face any kind of adversity. Deliberately putting ourselves in those situations requires someone who is dedicated to their own growth and expansion. I guess you’re just that kind of guy! If you haven’t read the Buddhist nun Pema Chodrun, I think you will enjoy her take on this.

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