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Courage to be uncomfortable

Because leadership is about taking people on a journey, on a journey of improvement, it is very easy to want to get people as quickly as possible to the destination, to the place where things are better, are fixed, are in the promised land. Listen to any fantasy story and the times of being stuck in the swamp, or in the castle dungeon or facing a monster are the times when the hero needs to get out and get out fast, so that the quest can be won. But, as leaders, we need to not be too hasty. The uncomfortable places can be places of learning.

Prison for learning

‘Everyone wants to be Nelson Mandela, but no-one wants the 27 years in prison’, is something my friend Trevor Waldock said to me recently. It is so true. It is so easy to look at successful people, to see the moments of success and fail to realise that they were shaped and honed in their prison moments. Rush from them too quickly and we can fail to learn from them.

This weekend saw the England men’s football team lose to Italy in the European Cup on penalties. Most of the whole nation tuned in to cheer them on to ‘bring football home’. And yet, despite being the best set of players we have seen in my generation, despite their best efforts, despite manager Gareth Southgate’s purposeful instilling of moral purpose, integrity and duty in his team, they lost on penalties. It would be so easy for Gareth Southgate, as leader of this team, to want to move on from this. Even more so, as the pain of penalties comes back to haunt him again. However, having the courage to be uncomfortable is where learning can happen.


I recently spoke to a coaching client about the importance of the ‘furnace’. A blacksmith knows that in order to turn iron into steel it needs to be tested in the fire, for impurities to be burnt off, to strengthen it. It is the same for us, we need the moments under testing, under pressure to help shape our thinking. It is painful, but reflecting on

  • What happened?

  • What went well?

  • What could we have done better?

helps to sharpen us. It will be uncomfortable, but this reflection in the discomfort means that the experience is not wasted. We can then move beyond a binary ‘good experience’ ‘bad experience’ to where every situation is a positive learning experience. Sure, there is discomfort in some, e.g losing on penalties again, but the reflection brings learning and improvement and therefore long term benefit.

Incidental benefits

So, when a ‘problem’ has occurred, review it. It might be uncomfortable as it reveals errors you made but sit in this for a while:

  • What do I learn about people?

  • What do I learn about the organisation?

  • What do I learn about the environment?

  • What do I learn about my leadership?

  • What are the ‘incidental benefits’?

One of the beautiful things about sitting in the discomfort for a while is that it won’t all be about discomfort. In fact, it can bring some joy and even healing. If Gareth Southgate reviews his last 2 months, he will see that despite losing, he won the nation’s hearts. Despite losing, he created a new positive reputation for players. Despite losing, he established a new moral purpose. Despite losing, he restored faith in public leadership so damaged by many politicians. So many, ‘incidental’ benefits. Some would say maybe even greater than winning the cup itself.

Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” This has been a recurring theme in this series and staying in the discomfort for a while, knowing it will be uncomfortable, needs courage. But in doing so we will as Nelson Mandela also so eloquently says, “The greatest glory in living is not in falling, but in rising every time we fall.” I don’t think we can really rise again, without a little courage to be uncomfortable.

Sitting in the uncomfortable is not always easy and sometimes you need someone to sit alongside you to help you learn from these moments. We offer one to one coaching, , and we also will be running a great pilot programme in September called ‘ReNEW’ for those leaders who have had those difficult moments in leadership that have scarred them.

Do check this out if you think we can help you learn from the discomfort:


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