Leadership: The Itch of Possibility

Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.

~John F. Kennedy

What’s the difference?

It’s easy to blur the divide between discomfort and pain. After all, advertising surrounds us with the message that relief is just a pill away. Or a self-help book away. Maybe an app or a drink could blur the uncomfortable feeling. We even treat the discomfort of emotions with a dose of another emotion—feeling down about your relationship? Don’t worry, be happy! But if we can’t feel discomfort without seeking treatment, we’re forever numb to opportunity.

Not being a masochist, I find no pleasure in pain. How about if we see discomfort and pain as different signals? I suggest discomfort is not a subset of pain.  Pain is the blood brother of loss, injury, disease, and harm. However, it’s the last of these we must be wary of when it comes to discomfort. If we can learn to break the association between discomfort and harm, we can disconnect the warning signal that blocks learning.

The Threat of Learning

The DEW (Distant Early Warning) line began operation in 1957.  Preparing for the worst, we built a series of radar stations that lay along the Arctic Circle. The DEW was supposed to provide the maximum possible time to prepare for a nuclear bomber attack from the Soviet Union. Yet we’ll never know how well it might have worked.

Like the radar stations, we all have internal DEW lines that provide alerts. Unfortunately, they’re still wired to a binary world of eat or be et {sic}. In that world, newness = threat. New physical conditions, new weather, new situations, even new ideas. Therein lies the rub. Our brains, still beautifully programmed for survival, have a default setting that sends a message: This new thing might signal a threat or it might not. WHY TAKE THE CHANCE?

So we stay in dysfunctional relationships, corrosive jobs, neighborhoods we no longer enjoy. Eventually, these situations lead to so much genuine pain that we either choose the discomfort of change or abide in pain. Maybe paying attention to discomfort is a way to prevent pain. Not just physical pain, but emotional and even spiritual pain as well.

Leadership and Discomfort

We think of supervisors, parents, teachers, clergy as leaders. I suggest that leadership is a way of being, regardless of age or position. That way of being thrives on vulnerability (another word for courage), which brings discomfort through embracing possibilities. This is not about abandoning what we’re doing but about enriching it through fearless curiosity.

Some years ago, a room full of folks I was working with decided they had a good definition of leadership (which I still use). They decided that leadership is the marketing of a vision. If my vision includes an aversion to change and to new ideas, that’s what I market to those who look to me for leadership. If, on the other hand, I act (as opposed to react) to new ideas as possibilities, I provide those around me with a place to explore rather than a place to run.

I’ve learned something about discomfort, both from my own experience as well as from the stories of others: as we embrace living curiously if we are open to change as well as to continuity, what felt like discomfort becomes the ‘itch’ of discovery. At that point, we’ve reprogrammed our DEW line. From that point on, we appreciate the itchiness—discomfort in gentler clothing—as looming possibility rather than as impending doom.

Pay attention to discomfort. Honor the possibilities of newness, the adventure of discovery. Discomfort only has the meaning which we assign to it. 

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Mac Bogert
Mac Bogert
I fell in love with learning, language, and leadership through the intervention of two professors—I had actually achieved a negative GPA—who kicked my butt for drifting through my first couple of semesters at Washington and Lee University. After graduate school at U. Va., I started teaching English at a large high school in northern Virginia. A terrific principal lit my fire, a terrible one extinguished it. I left after five years (the national average, as it turns out, maybe the only time I did something normal) and started an original folk/blues/rock band. That went well for a time until the record company sponsoring us folded. I toured for some years as an acoustic blues musician, primarily as an opening act for bands like the Muddy Waters Band, Doc, and Merle Watson and such remarkable talent. As that market dried up (disco), I earned my Coast Guard Masters License and worked for the next decade as a charter and delivery captain and sailing instructor. At the same time, I was working part-time as an actor and voice-over artist, selling inflatable boats and encyclopedias, and working as a puppeteer. Itchy feet, I suppose. I came back into the system in 1987 as a teacher specialist in health and drug education in my county school system, also part-time as Education Coordinator (and faculty member) for Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. I ‘departed’ both jobs in 1994 (therein lie more stories than 350 words could hold) and started my own business. AzaLearning is the career I’d been dodging for decades. I serve 200 clients around the country, helping with all kinds of coaching, planning, transforming conflict, creative problem-solving, communication, and mediation (I also trained and worked as a community mediator somewhere during sailing and teaching): learning, language, and leadership. In 2016 I published Learning Chaos: How Disorder Can Save Education and actively contribute to a couple of online education magazines as well as publish a newsletter, a blog, and the learning chaos podcast.

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  1. Mac, good connection of courage, leadership and learning! How your brain interprets signal vs noise comes from a combination of your experiences and the way you choose to interpret what’s gone before. I find that letting go of bitterness and forgiveness are the key to seeing your own path to leadership. For yourself. For your contribution to others.


    • Thank you, Cynthia.
      The connection between discarding barriers like bitterness is very powerful. I believe that our default setting is to be connected, curious, and enlivened. So we, as teachers and parents, selves and leaders, can turn our eye on the noise and learn to say “Not now, please, I’m busy finding my childlike self.”
      Be well,