Why Great Leadership Requires the Courage to Accept Pain

post from Angela Sebaly

As a
leadership coach, I’ve spent decades observing hundreds of people who have
strikingly different backgrounds and equally diverse approaches to leadership.
Despite the differences, there has been one quality that has separated the good
managers from the exceptional leaders: the willingness to step up to the plate
and face any challenge rather than avoid it. That means making difficult
decisions or implementing unpopular changes. It also means taking a stand or
holding an emotionally charged conversation. Even giving and receiving feedback
can be challenging – yet it’s a challenge that absolutely must be faced.

Thus, being a
great leader means turning towards the problem and tackling it head-on rather
than running from tension. Not just every now and then, but regularly.  This may sound like par for the course, but
in fact, it’s more complicated than it sounds and is often shirked because with
challenges, comes pain.

Most of us
have already experienced this somehow. After all, isn’t it easier to find a workaround
in a tricky situation than to risk a confrontation – even if that confrontation
might open the door to a lasting solution? This is just one example among many.

Instead of
trying to erase or evade the potential for pain in the midst of challenges, I
advise leaders to lean into the experience. This begins with acknowledging that
pain will inevitably arise  – whether
you’re holding a touchy conversation with an employee who has been an hour late
for a week straight, or making the decision to cut back on departmental funding
or personnel.

Pain can be a
tricky thing. We humans experience pain differently. Our threshold for pain is
entirely subjective. Pain is a stimulus, and how we perceive that stimulus
differs based on our individual propensity to sense it and tolerate it. One
person might faint at breaking a bone while another doesn’t realize it’s broken
for days, if not weeks. To be an effective leader, you have to understand your
relationship with pain and learn to endure it. 
It is, quite simply, part of the process of effective leadership.  Leaders must be mentally prepared for this
fact that pain and have a toolkit at their fingertips for rising to meet
challenges instead of shirking them in favor of stability and comfort.

This, in turn, requires courage. John Wayne once said that courage is
being scared to death and saddling up anyway. This definition is one I’ve held
onto in my work, because I believe courage partly comes from a leader’s ability
to face fear and potential pain.

The good news
is, no matter how pain-averse you are, you can develop the courage and strength
to rise to challenges and work through pain. Everyone can. Leaders falsely believe they are
required to be the Navy Seals of the workplace — unemotional, unwavering,
strong — to be considered courageous, but in reality, we all have the power to
tap into courage.

That’s because
courage is not something we are born with. 
It is not a definitive characteristic like the color of your eyes or
your height. Rather, courage is a mindset that requires only grit and
determination. To be courageous means to keep working at something even if it
is tough or uncomfortable. It takes practice and dedication, but once it’s
developed it is a priceless skill that can be applied to all varieties of
leadership, whether in the workplace, in the community or at home.

Angela Sebaly, author of The Courageous Leader (Wiley, spring
2017), is co-founder and CEO of the firm
Personify Leadership, a training provider. Formerly the Vice President of Leadership Development
for a global oil, gas and chemicals inspection company, Angela also serves as
principle consultant for the firm Invested Leadership. An entrepreneur
developing a global presence,  Angela has
been coaching, facilitating and leading teams and organizations for over two
decades. Education, communication and courage are the pillars of her life’s
work.  She lives with her family in Fort