Leadership Game Changer: Getting Comfortable with Uncomfortability

Imagine trying to sleep suspended thousands of feet off the ground on nothing but a metal frame suspended by ropes.  This is how big wall climbers do it when attacking multi-day rock climbing ascents.

Now imagine needing to do that as part of your job in order to drive leadership success.

Because you do.

OK, well not literally.  But you may be surprised at how much successful leadership and sleeping in metal mountain climbing cradles have in common.  Most notably: they both require a comfort with uncomfortability.

Getting Comfortable with Uncomfortability

Uncomfortability is the ability to manage and continue to progress forward in spite of trying or anxiety-causing conditions.  For rock climbers, uncomfortability might be sleeping mid-climb or slowing down the rate of progress to find the right footing.  For those of us in leadership positions, uncomfortability may occur when we are asked to manage outside of our strengths or deal with organizational uncertainty or transition.

An area many people struggle with is uncomfortability around growth and development.  Climbers and leaders alike set goals for themselves and become demotivated when it takes longer or is a less straight route to accomplishing them. In short: development can often be an uncomfortable process.

But what we know is that growth occurs at about 4% beyond our current ability – whether our ability is scaling a mega cliff or motivating a team. So being able to develop a process for continually pushing ourselves – and pushing ourselves through uncomfortability – will allow for our optimal development and in fact be a game changer for our success.

Cultivating a Mindset for Uncomfortability

When it comes to examining uncomfortability and how we approach development, looking at our mental approach is paramount. Carol Dweck, a leading researcher in the field of psychology, has spent extensive time researching and highlighted two differing mental approaches when it comes to skill acquisition and development. These are the fixed and growth mindset.

What she found was that the most successful individuals have a key difference in their approach to development. They have embraced the growth mindset, which is a belief in that skill can be developed over time, rather than the fixed mindset, which focuses on believing individuals are imbued within innate talents. Those that held the growth mindset were seen as to embrace challenges more than their counterparts, and more importantly, were continually willing to take more risks in terms of seeing their capabilities.

Due to this, those with the growth mindset have two key advantages over those with a fixed mindset. They understand their limits more and they’re willing to push beyond those limits to illicit growth. What the growth mindset gives us is a different perspective on development. It allows us to view challenge as an opportunity to grow, rather than an opportunity to fail. Those climbers can sleep on that wall because they view it from that perspective. When we see those photos we think, “I could die” – we’re focused on the failure. They instead see an opportunity for another challenge that will lead towards growth.

Building a Tolerance for Uncomfortability

Here at Cleaver, we’ve coined a term for describing what the best developers have imparted in their development process: we call it a tolerance for uncomfortability, and it’s an ability to essentially learn to feel comfortable in situations where we don’t feel comfortable.

To tip the challenge/skills ratio (e.g. the balance between a challenge we’re facing and the skills by which we have to overcome it) in favor towards growth, we need to be consistently hitting that “4% more than current ability” window. That is the zone just past what we know we can do, but not so far as what we know we can’t do. We’re being strained to do just a bit more than we currently can, but not so much as to overwhelm us. To foster continual development, we need to hit this range as frequently as possible.

So, we can leverage the growth mindset to provide the motivation to face more challenges, and through trying to habituate a tolerance for uncomfortability, we’ll become more and more comfortable with pushing our current limits, so much so that it becomes part of our everyday routine. This is when our development will blossom and sleeping on the wall of a mountain will illustrate how far we’ve come, rather than how close to failure we may seem.

Photo by TMSean courtesy of Flickr

To Lead Others Effectively, Articulate Your Legacy ASAP

When it comes to those ubiquitous motivational posters you see in so many offices around the country, my favorite has always been the ones that deal with legacy. The poster’s image, often an open stretch of beach, is usually captioned with a question that reads something like:

“What will your footprints look like when you move on?”

Now I realize in our modern, cynical world it might be strange to admit I have a favorite motivational poster. But the reason the ones on legacy have always stood out to me is because in all my working experience I have found few things more powerful when it comes to leading and growing others. In short: legacy is not just how you are remembered, but how you lead every single day.

For the first thirty years of my career, thoughts about my legacy would disappear as quickly as they came to mind. It took a confluence of three events within a period of 5 months in 1991 to help me grasp the powerful influence the concept of my own legacy would have not just in how I was remembered but how I worked with my people (and still do) on a daily basis.

The first event could be described as routine: a cardiologist on our staff, “Dr. Z.”, met with me to lobby for the incorporation of a new approach – then called “alternative care” – to caring for heart and cancer patients. It included Eastern medicine approaches, like yoga, meditation, Reiki, and other methods, to be encouraged along with traditional Western medicine. It sounded interesting, so I approved the creation of an exploratory team of hospital leaders to examine the feasibility of such a program.

The second event was much more dramatic: five months after Dr. Z approached me about bringing alternative care to our hospital, my wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

At the crossroads of these two events, I found myself starting to reflect on life and our individual impact on it. It was at this time that I also found myself noticing those “footprints in the sand” posters and lingering on their imagery, although the word “legacy” hadn’t become articulated in my mind.

It was the third and final event that sparked my legacy epiphany: one month after my wife’s diagnosis, the exploratory team researching alternative care convened for a three-day conference to review their findings.

One of their findings on alternative care revolved around the importance of legacy articulation for severely ill patients as a healing tool. On the second day of this conference, the meeting facilitator demonstrated its impact by asking all of us present to write down our “legacies” in three distinct categories:


After we had a chance to get some thoughts down on paper, each one of us had to present our answers to the group while sitting in a rocking chair at the head of the room.

To this day, more than twenty years later, that experience was the most powerful event of my business career. For it was in that moment I connected not only to my own living legacy, but also heard about the living legacies of those I worked with. It brought an entirely new perspective to how I interacted with and led the individuals in that room, as well as how I managed my own behavior.

One month later, in December of 1991, we integrated the legacy as an integral part of our Leadership Development program. And against the odds, my wonderful wife is by my side and enjoying our family, twenty three years after a terminal sentence.

Now I am retired from my role as a hospital CEO, but I still integrate legacy articulation in those three areas – professional, personal, and societal – into my work with individuals and teams as a Cleaver Resource Executive. No, articulating a legacy doesn’t replace the value and insight some of our other diagnostics provide, like the Cleaver DISC, but in my experience it can become a capstone to the process.

If you are a leader, I highly recommend you carve out some time today to jot down some ideas about your own legacy in these three areas. Once you have had a chance to do that, encourage your people to do it as well and create an environment where those legacies can be shared. You might be surprised at how it changes your own behavior, and the success of your team.

Here are some examples of Legacy within those three categories:

Professional: Inspirational leader who made a positive difference for his company, his team & his peers.

Personal: Dedicated loving son, husband, father, grandfather, & friend who loved & cared about people in his life & made sure they knew.

Societal: Honest, committed, determined man who made a difference & stood up for his beliefs, even in the face of significant opposition.

Photo by Christine Mahler courtesy of Flickr

Behavior vs. Personality: Determining The Best Workplace Assessment

For many leaders, effectively working with coworkers, supervisors, subordinates, and teams can be a persistent and confusing struggle. This struggle can arise from varying factors including lack of role clarity, responsibility overload, and misaligned values. But there is one aspect of effectively working with others that can (and should) be quantified and concretely addressed to increase productivity: behavior.

In our experience, many people confuse the concept of behavior with the concept of personality. The challenge is that personality – while popularized through assessments like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – is a relatively subjective and broad concept. However behavior, which is often considered an aspect of personality, is measurable and more easily applied to leadership development and the world of work.

This is why at Cleaver Company, we believe behavior matters more in workplace profiling than personality. By understanding behavior, we are able to understand how we (and others) respond to our environment and make adjustments to that response that improves our leadership and ability to effectively work with others.

The Difference Between Behavior and Personality

While personality has a subjective definition that can encompass everything from cognition to emotion to human intangibles, behavior is narrowly defined as our response to our environment. This broad interpretation of personality is why assessments like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator have come under criticism for their effectiveness, especially in the workplace.

The study of behavior, on the other hand, is based on binary elements of perception and response, which makes it easier to quantify and study. Our ability to effectively assess behavior is due in large part to the work of William M. Marston, an early 20th century psychologist and researcher. In addition to creating the Wonder Woman comic, Marston was responsible for trailblazing the study and research of normal human behavior and laid the foundation for our Cleaver DISC Profile tool. From his research, Marston proposed that all individuals will view any situation and/or environment as either favorable or antagonistic (unfavorable), which in turn will yield an active or passive response. Or, more simply stated, that our behavior represents “how” we approach and complete various tasks, like meeting a deadline.

The Value of Understanding Behavior

The challenge is that each individual will respond differently to his or her environment, and often times do not have the self-knowledge or insight to predict how he or she will behave. For example, under the pressure of a deadline, we may lash out or we could shut down. Depending on whether we perceive the deadline as favorable or unfavorable, we may also feel excited or negatively energized by it. This myriad range of behavioral differences impacts how we will complete tasks and also how we will interpret the behavior of others related to task completion. Thus, conflicts and inefficiency emerge and – too often – are the norm for leaders, even at the best organizations.

However, by utilizing behavioral profiling tools like the Cleaver DISC Profile, we can begin to better understand our own behavior as well as each other’s, and in turn lead and work more effectively. And while it might be valuable to understand all the intangible and subjective elements of our personalities, there is no doubt that in the world of work our behavior – how tasks get completed – is a more immediately valuable and actionable focus for leaders.

Photo courtesy of David Andersen via Flickr

If Your Leaders Can’t Do This, Your Team Results Will Suffer

The concept of motivation has become ubiquitous in modern leadership, so much so that for many it has gone the way of other buzzwords and lost all real sense of actionable meaning and impact.

I know, because I have spent my entire career – first as a turnaround CEO and now as a Cleaver consultant – working with executives and companies who have a hollow appreciation and grasp of the role of motivation in leadership…and are paying for it in team results.

However, in my experience, motivation of teams is a timeless foundation of leadership success. No matter how many new, shiny, buzzworthy, or technology savvy strategies emerge (my LinkedIn Pulse feed seems to be full of them), motivation will never lose its place at the heart of leadership. This is why it has remained a core Cleaver Leadership Skill for decades, and why – in my experience – most successes (and failures) of leadership can be boiled down to motivation.

But how can we bring substance back to the motivation dialogue and identify practical approaches?

To answer that, I’d like to share an example from my days as a CEO.

A Case Study on the Impact of Motivation

The real impact of motivation became clear to me in 1979. After three years as the CEO of a turnaround situation at the largest 501[c] [3] VNA-Public Health organization in New Jersey, I was proud to see that the organization was finishing its 2nd year in the black after 4 years of running increasing deficits [1973-1977]. My mentor, Ozzie Nestor, PhD. a Dean of the Graduate Business School at Monmouth University, and I completed a debriefing to try to identify what went right, what did not , and why these contributing factors were imperative to this successful turnaround.

We examined the various actions taken with an eye not only on the actions themselves, but moving outside of the box to who the affected parties were for each action. One of the questions we asked was “Why did the staff commit themselves to moving the initiatives forward to success?” After all, several actions were negative (layoffs, no raises for 2 years) in nature and impacted them in a very direct fashion.

What emerged, clear as a bell, was motivation. Specifically, motivation in three distinctive areas:

Factual – Motivate Teams with Information: the exhaustive efforts to share data (financials, cash flows, rationales for actions) and remaining trust worthy/truthful in our actions, inspired the staff to analyze the data, etc. with an open mind.

Reasonable – Motivate Teams with Wisdom: once we had their attention with the data, we understood that their wisdom, which resides in the heart, assisted them to see the value of the actions to move forward.

Behavioral – Motivate Individuals with Self-Knowledge: many companies find this the hardest one to capture, because they lack the tools for understanding and discussing it. Really, it’s about tapping into what drives them or, what I often referred to as the “soul.” If you succeed here, it will not only move them forward, it will propel them forward & commit them to the organization.

Motivation and Results

It is possible for a leader to be successful if they are able to motivate in one of these three areas. However, the shelf life of that success will likely be short, or until the next problem arises and you start all over with the motivation process.

However, if your leaders can capture all three areas of motivation, success will not only be accelerated, it will endure.

As a responsible leader, this was a lesson that I have never forgot. It has guided me towards success throughout my career, and in turn has allowed me to facilitate the success of others