When Buffer was in its start-up phase, co-founder and CEO Joel Gascoigne struggled to reconcile his logical and scientific mind with the realities of being a leader. With only a trickle of traffic, he couldn’t use A/B testing to determine what was working (and what wasn’t) on his website. He didn’t have historical data to illustrate a predictable sales cycle. Most of the decisions he made, he made with imperfect information.
Joel isn’t unique in his predicament. Leading requires the making of bold decisions in spite of imperfect information. In fact, people who are leading will always be more uncomfortable than the people who report to them. It’s unavoidable, but it’s also a good thing.
Qualities of People Who Are Leading
If you’re not crystal clear on the word leader and the worthlessness of leader as a noun, click here to read my last article. “Leader” is a title that can be given to anyone. Leading is the behavior that determines whether or not the title is deserved. I described six habits embraced by those who lead and ended up engaged in an interesting conversation with the CEO of a fast-growing company. Upon further consideration, I must add a seventh habit to my list: living with discomfort. You see, managers have the good fortune to make decisions with all the information on hand, but leaders understand that they must make decisions despite incomplete or imperfect information.
Leading Through Fog and Ambiguity
While leading, we daily encounter situations in which a bold decision must be made with only the imperfect information we have in the moment. Start-ups face ambiguity at every turn, but leaders in established organizations face similar situations every day. For example:
- Hiring: A leader can use his or her best judgment, but it’s never entirely clear how well a new hire will work out.
- Budgeting: Are you spending too little? Too much? Historical and ROI data can help, but they don’t paint a complete picture.
- Navigating Emergencies: Leaders must react quickly during emergent situations in order to take control and prevent problems from spiraling out of control.
As a leader in action, you will find yourself uncomfortable on a regular basis. Despite this discomfort, you have a mandate to make decisions in the fog and ambiguity that surrounds you. Leading and discomfort are intrinsically linked.
Awhile back, I wrote about noble inauthenticity – times when leaders must be inauthentic or even dishonest for the good of their organizations. Facing discomfort is one of those times when authenticity serves no one. Instead, it’s important to put on a good face and hide that you are uncomfortable in order to protect your team and your company.
Instead of loathing your discomfort, try to welcome it. Living in a state of perpetual discomfort is a positive sign that you are not just a leader but that you are, in fact, leading. I would go so far as to say that if you find yourself feeling comfortable, you should take a step back and evaluate your position. You may have abdicated your leadership in exchange for momentary peace, but your organization needs you to be uncomfortable again.
Do you have any tips for coping with the discomfort of leading? How do you recognize when you’ve stopped leading and become too comfortable? Let’s talk.