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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. 

Like to hear the podcast (with extra commentary)?

Mac Bogert
Mac Bogerthttps://azalearning.com/
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.

12 COMMENTS

  1. It is, unfortunately, a characteristic of many politicians: they tend to approve, at least apparently, of public opinion. Thus, when asked for his opinion, he will simply present the thought that appears most right to him at that moment, the answer that everyone expects to hear. Conceal your identity, your thoughts, to appear as everyone expects. Abandoning one’s being, avoiding being oneself, not accepting one’s identity, choosing to make choices that do not reflect us should lead us to live a life that is not ours badly. In the case of politicians, however, it is a kind of protection.

  2. Thank you, Mac, for highlighting the fine line between PAIN and DISCOMFORT! To be very honest with you, and with all due regards, I wish to share with you my personal ‘discomfort’ while reading your otherwise well-written article.

    You started with a quote from John F. Kennedy: “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.” Naturally, I expected you to throw some light on the equation of those with positive leadership traits to act on what they THINK is right vs. the ones hiding behind public opinion because it protects them against too much criticism.

    We can find plenty of ‘fake’ leaders among us without much effort. Most of the time, these individuals seek comfort in public opinion as they lack the spine to take bold decisions. They cannot ‘think’ what to do or how to act in a challenging situation, so they look up to others.

    Without going too far, you can find them aplenty in the political circles around the globe. At home, under the growing menace of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the rivalry between State Governors and the President’s Office presents a live testament to the same situation.

    With Warm Regards, and A Prayer for All

    BM

    • Thanks, Bharat, for your insight.

      Perhaps this quake in our world will embolden more of us to expect more from our leaders. And from ourselves.

      My motto is “Lead from where you stand.” Too often, people mistake charisma, noise, aggressiveness, celebrity for leadership. I suspect we could sit down for a cup of tea and have a fine conversation.

      Keep on fighting the good fight!

      Mac

      • I never meant to challenge your wisdom, Mac. Its just the fact that I could not relate to the specific message of the quote you have used. Somehow, perhaps due to my immaturity, I could not establish a connection with the contents of your article.

        Well, we can always communicate and learn from each other.

        By speaking our mind, we not only overcome obstacles to a potentially great friendship, but also sharpen our skills.

        On that note

        Thank You, once again!

        • Thanks again, Bharat.

          Luckily, I’m married, so my wisdom is challenged daily. We love and trust each other and that nourishes candor.

          I gave up taking offense at feedback some time back, and I firmly believe that from our differences comes wisdom. As a wise man once said: “By speaking our mind, we not only overcome obstacles to a potentially great friendship, but also sharpen our skills.”

          Here’s to friendship, and let’s find an opportunity to talk.

          Be good. And well.
          Mac

  3. Wonderful insights Mac on how we choose to see discomfort, pain, and newness. I love how you invite new perspective on leadership and the possibility newness offers rather than deferring to our fear-based human conditioning.

    • Thanks, Brian. I think I neglected to hit “post” last time, so if this is a repeat . . . I’ve always been so excited by discovery, ever since I was little(r), that the program of fear-of-unknown has alway been more of a nuisance than a hindrance. My friend Bruce introduces me to new friends as “Mac, the oldest kid I know.”
      Keep on keepin’ on.
      Mac

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