The path of leadership is one of change. One of growth. Most leaders think that this is a thinking exercise. That change is simply a matter of deciding what we want and then systematically working toward it. As comforting as it is to think of ourselves as these incredibly logical, empirically efficient creatures (particularly as we make decisions with millions of dollars and the well-being of others in the balance), unfortunately that’s not the case.
Research indicates that people, even the most calculating leaders, make decisions emotionally and then rationalize that decision with logic. In other words, what we now know is that the work of our conscious mind is to rationalize, not to be rational. And so it is with change. It’s not enough to understand the benefit of change—we must also reach the same conclusion emotionally.
Navigating Change as a Leader
When change happens, it’s usually because changing feels better than staying the same. As complicated as change can seem, it’s really that simple. And then afterward we come up with logical reasons in support of the change.
Simple yes. But this is an incredibly high bar. We’re evolutionarily wired to prefer the status quo because no matter how bad it is, we know we will live through it. We can of course take steps to make change feel better—visualization, practicing gratitude or acceptance, leaning into the “sharp points” as Pema Chodron instructs, etc.—but overcoming our evolutionary bias against change is often too difficult, and we end up frustrated despite our at times herculean efforts.
When change does finally happen, it’s most often the result of pain. Whether that’s the physical pain of touching a hot stove, or the emotional pain of having our work rejected by a customer or investor, we change most effectively and reliably when staying the same hurts too bad. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to.”
The Painful Truth About Meaningful Change
Great. Pain drives change. Pain still sucks. So what? Understanding this, we can take an active (although unpleasant) role in our own transformation.
The reason that so many leaders evolve slower than they’d like is that humans don’t like pain. So when pain comes we look away, numbing ourselves to the very catalyst for our transformation. We might ignore the pain of rejection by quickly jumping to the next task, or distract ourselves from the pain with TV or food. We might just shove the feeling down in the name of “compartmentalizing.”
And in so doing we stay comfortable, and stuck, robbing ourselves of the transformation we say we want. We don’t evolve, not because it’s actually comfortable where we are, but because we aren’t willing to face the actual pain of our situation. To feel it, unmitigated, without reflexively looking away.
If you’re playing to win, all of life is an obstacle. If you’re playing to grow, all of life is an ally.
It’s normal to avoid pain and it makes sense to avoid it in most circumstances. But if you’re trying to change, to grow, as so many leaders are, the specific pain caused by your current situation can also be an incredible motivator for change—if you welcome it. If you’re playing to win, all of life is an obstacle. If you’re playing to grow, all of life is an ally.
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