Leading Outside Your Comfort Zone

Mastering the challenge of effective leadership in our sector means being able to move from your comfort zone and into areas that you would rather avoid. In our offices we love the quote from Rudolf Bahro, “When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.”

Leading on the edge (or ledge!) is a critical and timely challenge for all of us, so here are the first 10 tips as you consider related aspects of your behavior and performance:

1.    Do what it takes to grow. Take more risk. Seek ways to stretch yourself. The times when we take risk are the times when we grow. “Safe” is awfully close to “stale.”

2.    Resist the temptation to play it safe “…in this economy.” It is in fact during uncertain times that you will discover your finest leadership gifts. Meanwhile, our economy isn’t changing in any direction with any particular speed, so don’t wait for what used to be your personal or organizational definition of success to re-emerge. Resist saying, “…when things return to normal.” Today IS the new normal. Accept that fact, and you’re already better off.

3.    Remember that “courage” is not defined as “the absence of fear.” It is in facing your fear. Allow yourself to have fears and weaknesses. You are human. A human being without fear is not brave–in fact, he or she dangerously close to being a psychopath. Your goal is not to eliminate your fear, but rather, to know what it is and proceed accordingly.

4.    Move toward your fear, and you can begin to defeat it. Consider this sentiment when you are hiring people for your team, for example, and be sure to hire to your weakness. This is counterintuitive to your natural impulse, but you must strive to hire your opposite, not your clone. Be confident enough to surround yourself with people who are better than you are at what needs to be done.

5.    Face challenges head on. Take an offensive, not defensive, position. At the same time, guide your actions by your organization’s mission-not by petty or passing concerns. This is challenging when you’ve got to appreciate the political landscape (of your community, or on your board) without being completely distracted by it. Appreciate the difference between your over-reaction to something that comes up suddenly versus being flexible and nimble to address the unexpected.

6.    Push yourself to new and better goals. Athletes understand this, as do their coaches. Define, both personally and professionally, where your comfort is (this is the starting point) and where your stretch goals should be (this is the challenging but attainable milestones). We’re not asking you to do the impossible. We’re asking you to continually set bold, outrageous goals that inspire you to perform at maximum capacity. When you reach them, set new ones.

7.    Worry less about being liked. It is far better to be respected. Again, it is finding that sweet spot that allows you to be empathetic and sensitive to the opinions of a group, but not overcome by the (illogical and impossible) need to make everyone feel terrific.

8.    Take advantage of the inevitable discord or conflicts in work and life to convene a real dialogue. A complaint means that someone cared enough about your organization to bring something to your attention. Be the kind of person who is willing to hear bad news and welcomes a chance to continuously improve (see #6 above).

9.    Deliver bad news as precisely and quickly as possible. Start with the facts and the bottom line–not the details, background, reasons, etc. Appreciate that bad news is hard for all of us to hear, so make it easy to understand without a lot of extraneous detail. Remember that such moments are not “about you”: they are about the people most negatively affected by the information you are delivering.

10.  Don’t dominate just because your role affords it. Bring others along and always make sure you’re not holding the only candle in the room. Regardless of where you are in your career, always think about your leaving. Bold leaders appreciate succession planning as a natural chapter–foolish leaders ignore it and let the emergency bring everything to a standstill.

11.  Manage when management is called for, and lead when the situation demands leadership. As simple as it sounds, this is a profoundly important shift that many of us stumble over. Appreciate the difference and know when to move seamlessly between the two.

12.  Remember that knowing your default style — driver, amiable, analytic, etc. — is useful, but don’t plan on living in that zone exclusively. In fact, plan on leaving that zone more often than you ever have. (Keep your overnight bag packed.)

13.  Appreciate that the risk of being comfortable is that you become complacent. Honing your wisdom and growing as a leader is a project that never gets “done.”

14. Check your ego and nurture confidence over arrogance, despite all that you believe you know about competition and winning. Nonprofit leaders must lead from the heart while simultaneously running their operations like a business.

15.  Listen more, speak less — especially if you’re usually the one doing all the talking.

16.  Trust your gut for the signal that it is time to step from comfort to discomfort.

17.  Value the contrarian in your organization (i.e., on your board) as a needed counterpoint worth hearing.

18.  Leave some credit for others, always taking less than you believe you deserve. Be known for your humility. Even though a traditional organizational chart or hierarchy means that as the leader, you can by definition take credit for all that is accomplished by the people below you . . . don’t.

19.  Apologize legitimately but swiftly, and without qualification (“I’m sorry, but…”). The finest apology is probably three words: I am sorry. When you add on “but,” “although,” or even “and,” you are literally eroding the value of the apology you just made. An apology with a string of qualifiers afterward (“I’m sorry this report is late, but I didn’t get the data from Bob on time”) means that you aren’t really sorry at all — you want the blame on someone else.

20.   Accept the 80/20 rule of your work: that 80 percent of what you do is likely your natural gift, it comes easily, and it’s what you enjoy. It’s the other 20 percent of your role that is uncomfortable — what you avoid — that they’re paying you to perform!

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