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How to Handle Discomfort as a Leader

Earlier this year, I spent the day with a group of women leaders in an all-day workshop. We talked about many leadership topics: Shifting from doer to leader, building confidence, utilizing your best talents, speaking up and taking action. But there was one concept that we kept coming back to. 




I think sometimes when we say yes to a leadership role or set exciting goals, we make a plan for everything to happen in a straight line with no challenges. But one thing that surprises many of my clients (okay, me, too!) is the unexpected discomfort that comes with showing up and taking action in new ways. 


Here's a list of discomforts we discussed:

  1. The discomfort of delegating a task and watching someone struggle and how hard it is not to step in and take over or give advice

  2. The discomfort of taking bigger risks as your career accelerates and you become more visible

  3. The discomfort of speaking up and sharing new ideas or a contrasting opinion

  4. The discomfort of being brand new in your role and feeling like you know nothing!

  5. The discomfort of giving difficult feedback

In times of discomfort, it's tempting to use short-term strategies like taking over a task, shying away from the risk, staying silent or procrastinating to temporarily get rid of the icky feeling. 


Ultimately, these strategies feel good in the moment because we avoid hard feelings, but they end up costing us in the long term because they keep us micromanaging, taking over, playing small and remaining silent. 


Our teams lose because they never benefit from the development that comes with a struggle. We lose because our ideas go unheard and our goals go unrealized. We stay stuck as doers instead of leaders.


But the magic happens when you can learn to EXPECT and even embrace the discomfort that comes with career and leadership growth. 


I get it - when we set our goals and hope they happen linearly, discomfort can come as a surprise and we may even wonder if something is wrong with us. However, discomfort is actually a good sign that you are learning and stretching your comfort zone (so long as it’s not coupled with dread or panic or “warning lights”).


Great leaders are frequently uncomfortable leaders. If you want more proof of this, watch the panel I led with Indra Nooyi (former Pepsi CEO) and Padmasree Warrior (Fable CEO, former Cisco & Motorola CTO) and hear it straight from the top. 


What can you do to move through the discomfort that arises so you can be a clear and confident leader?  

Expectations vs. Reality


Next time you are feeling discomfort as you coach a team member, delegate a task, speak up, take action or make a big change, try this:  


1. Notice the feeling without criticizing it.

  • Take deep, 4-count breaths to calm and center your nervous system.

  • Notice the feeling without criticizing it - you cannot criticize yourself into more confidence.

2. Name the feelings: 

  • Naming your feelings doesn't give them power! By labeling them accurately it creates emotional clarity - it removes the panic of ambiguity.

  • Give the feelings room. Breathe. Allow them to be there.

3. Normalize the discomfort:

  • It's normal to feel discomfort when I'm trying new things / stretching my comfort zone.

  • Even the most successful leaders feel discomfort in their daily leadership.

4. Reframe the feeling:

  • “This is what growth feels like.”

  • “This means I'm moving closer to my goals.”

  • I can be a great leader (speaker, new employee, etc) while also feeling discomfort.

What discomfort are you going to plan for and allow as you move closer to your goals? Take your smallest, bravest next step!

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