Debunking Leadership Myths #6 — It’s OK to Avoid Actions That Make Me Uncomfortable

The previous leadership myth article in this series highlighted the importance of inspiration—and just how much it matters. This time, we’re digging into something slightly less pleasant: the impact of discomfort. 

Many of us have unknowingly allowed ourselves to be lulled into believing Leadership Myth #6: it’s okay to avoid actions that make me uncomfortable. 

In truth, discomfort is an inherent part of growth, and growth is the goal of almost every business leader out there. That growth doesn’t occur magically! Rather, you must think differently about your current circumstances and where you want to go, see things you haven’t seen before, ask yourself tough questions, and acknowledge things about your beliefs and behaviors as a leader that may have been difficult to face in the past. 

Progress in the form of sustainable growth takes serious work—it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You don’t finish a marathon and head straight to the gym. Why? You’re a bit sore and understand that your discomfort is part of the deal. In fact, it’s a large part of what makes crossing the finish line such an accomplishment. Which brings me to a crucial concept that has emerged over the course of my coaching career: 

I‘ve never observed a business in which the sustained growth rate of the company exceeds the personal growth rate of the people running it.

Your growth as a leader is essential to this process: if you want to see your company progress, you have to be willing to invest the time and energy necessary to address your own personal development. And that means—you guessed it—you have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. 

When you’re not leaning into discomfort, it’s easy to pick up any number of unproductive habits—invisible growth killers afflicting virtually every business leader I’ve ever met. Worse, because the mechanisms maintaining our habits are unconscious, it’s hard to break them—or even realize they exist in the first place—a real issue when growth is your goal. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the unproductive leadership habits my globally-deployed coaching colleagues and I routinely observe: 

  • Failing to commit to a strategy
  • Denying reality 
  • Avoiding making decisions
  • Maintaining comfort-zone networks (in which the leader is surrounded by others who don’t actively and rigorously challenge them)
  • Tolerating low performers
  • Needing to be liked
  • Avoiding conflict
  • Not listening enough (i.e. talking too much!)
  • Demonstrating an inability to maintain routines
  • Tracking a few meaningful metrics

Do any of these habits sound familiar? Chances are the answer is yes, and not just because my coaching experience exposes their prevalence. In 2015, Leadership IQ, an online leadership training firm, surveyed more than one thousand board members from the private and public sectors who had recently fired their CEOs to determine the most common reasons for termination.

 The top five responses? 

  • Mismanaging change
  • Ignoring customers
  • Tolerating low performers
  • Denying reality
  • Too much talk, not enough action

As you can see, there’s a significant overlap between Leadership IQ’s research and the unproductive habits I’ve noted. If you read through both lists again, you’ll see that all of these items minimize productive action. It’s not that leaders don’t know what to do and how to do it; it’s that their unproductive habits render them unable to get things done—more than occasionally with dire consequences. 

Fortunately, though, you do not have to be stuck with unproductive leadership habits. You have power over them—and over the trajectory of your business. You just have to recognize and embrace the discomfort that accompanies transformation. That brings us to Activator #4: Change Unproductive Habits (from my book Activators: A CEO’s Guide to Clearer Thinking and Getting Things Done). 

The first step in changing an unproductive habit is to recognize that humans, by nature, are creatures of habit. After all, your habits – like mine – have helped us conserve energy and survive as individuals and as a species. But like most things, there are pros and cons to habits; we all have some that don’t serve our goals, our relationships, and our loftiest aspirations.

Take some time to identify your most unproductive leadership habits. This free Hidden Growth Killer Self-Assessment is a fantastic place to start. Highlight the items that seem to have the most damaging impact—the ones preventing you from reaching your goals. For the bravest among you, dear readers, you can supersize this task by asking some of your direct reports and trusted advisors to complete the assessment from their perspective of you as a leader. Yes, hearing their input could certainly be uncomfortable – but you know by now that your discomfort is a sign of progress!

Next, you must acknowledge that there are rewards associated with your current patterns of thinking. Consider: if your habits weren’t rewarding you in some way, you wouldn’t maintain them. For example, let’s say you’re uncomfortable talking about money, so you have a habit of avoiding the subject entirely. It’s likely that by avoiding conversations about money, you avoid having to confront your own discomfort with it, or perhaps the fear that you aren’t doing as well financially as your peers. That “reward” of avoidance, though, is small and short-term. 

With an understanding of why you maintain a particular habit, you must identify its consequences. In this case, if you continue to hold financial matters at arm’s length, you will never be able to achieve your financial goals. And worse, chances are you’ll raise children who are equally uncomfortable talking about money, which will affect their financial progress down the line. Pinpointing the consequences of your unproductive habits and realizing that they far outweigh the rewards in terms of long-term impact help tip the scale toward change. 

How do you make that learning stick? Once you’ve reviewed the rewards and consequences of an unproductive habit, it’s time to identify and install a replacement. Research demonstrates that replacing, rather than resisting your urges, is the only way to permanently alter your habits. 

In a New York Times article titled “Resistance Is Futile. To Change Habits, Try Replacement Instead,” author Carl Richards describes ironic process theory, which dictates that when you try actively to change bad habits by resisting them, you are bound to fail.

Want to see what this looks like in action? Richards has an exercise for you. He tells readers to “try not to picture a white bear.” Go ahead, try it! You’ll see that you can’t help but picture that bear. Actively resisting something actually causes you to focus on it, making resistance even more difficult. 

That’s where replacement comes in. Richards shares the story of a friend who replaced an unproductive habit with something simple and totally innocuous: drinking a glass of water. Over time, his urge to engage in his old habit lessened until he forgot about it entirely. 

You can do the same. This free Change Your Habits tool will help you identify unproductive habits, fully consider their consequences and find potential replacements—the same process I just described. I urge you to check it out and try using the tool. It’s worked wonders for many leaders and will likely advance your productivity to a level you may not have been able to imagine previously. 

 Let me know how this process works for you!

One of the most virtuous habits of effective leaders is to surround themselves with exceptionally high-quality people. In the next article in this series, we’ll tackle Leadership Myth #7—a particularly debilitating, demoralizing, growth-killing belief: that you’re already surrounded by the right people. 

Resource Links…

In my work as a business and leadership growth coach, I encounter articles, research, and stories about how leaders learn, grow, and become more effective. As you’ll see below, I share a select few in each edition of my newsletter – particularly those at the intersection of leadership, business growth, and behavior change.

Learning is a Learned Behavior. Here’s How to Get Better at It.

“Many people mistakenly believe that the ability to learn is a matter of intelligence. For them, learning is an immutable trait like eye color, simply luck of the genetic draw. People are born learners, or they’re not, the thinking goes. So why bother getting better at it.

And that’s why many people tend to approach the topic of learning without much focus. They don’t think much about how they will develop an area of mastery. They use phrases like “practice makes perfect” without really considering the learning strategy at play. It’s a remarkably ill-defined expression, after all. Does practice mean repeating the same skill over and over again? Does practice require feedback? Should practice be hard? Or should it be fun?

A growing body of research is making it clear that learners are made, not born. Through the deliberate use of practice and dedicated strategies to improve our ability to learn, we can all develop expertise faster and more effectively. In short, we can all get better at getting better…”

These 7 Questions Will Change The Way You Lead Forever

“Coaching is one of the most powerful leadership and sales tools.

It can be tempting to dismiss it as time-consuming or hand holding, but both of those assumptions are mistaken. In his book, The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier gives busy leaders advice on how to coach effectively.

In ten minutes or less, you can ask strategic and thought-provoking questions that can help drive beneficial changes in behavior, help build team cohesiveness, and get things done effectively.Here are his seven questions to add to your coaching toolbox to make your life easier and get big results…”

Turning Strategy into Results

“How can leaders translate the complexity of strategy into guidelines that are simple and flexible enough to execute? Rather than trying to boil the strategy down to a pithy statement, it’s better to develop a small set of priorities that everyone gets behind to produce results…”

Want More? Consider These Next Steps…