Leading beyond your comfort zone

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COMMENTARY There's nothing better than waking up on a Monday morning, getting dressed and realizing you've got nothing challenging on the calendar that day. Of course, that's entirely subjective since one person's nightmare challenge is another person's walk in the park.

Still, everybody's got a comfort zone they prefer to stay inside of. You do, I do, everybody does. And while it's popular to talk about leadership platitudes and laundry lists of attributes that make some people more successful than others, your career depends more on how well you deal with challenges outside your comfort zone than anything.

A tale of two CEOs

According to one CEO I've known for years, he loves to "show up every day and find a new problem waiting for him." Whether it's "an employee threatening to quit or a customer who is upset or a problem in manufacturing," he likes being a CEO because he loves solving problems.

Well, trust me when I tell you the guy isn't as effective or comfortable dealing with some things on that laundry list as he was with others. But you know, he always does what has to be done, even in the face of daunting challenges. And I don't recall him ever whining, complaining or lashing out in anger or frustration at the hand he was dealt.

As a result, he's been very, very successful -- deservedly so.

How strong leaders handle surprises
Where does leadership come from?

Another chief executive I worked for, years before, was an entirely different story. He cofounded a well-known, innovative company that was very successful for a number of years, went public and grew to about $500 million in sales. Then it hit a competitive wall. The technical, manufacturing and marketing challenges were enormous.

But instead of challenging himself and venturing outside his comfort zone to do what had to be done, he hunkered down, dug in his heels, and became famously abusive to anyone who challenged his narrow-minded decisions. As a result, he made some huge strategic blunders and was ultimately fired by the board.

He never recovered from that. End of story.

Now, here's the thing. If you asked 10 people who really knew them to describe their best and worst leadership qualities, you'd probably get similar answers.

For example, some would say the first CEO had a great business mind but wasn't so good at dealing with issues involving people. That he was an amazing scientist but a terrible presenter who lacked any sort of charisma. They would also say he was a nice guy. Granted, those were his most visible qualities, good and bad.

As for the second CEO, folks would call him a great engineering manager who was clueless about marketing and sales. Or that he was a taskmaster who lacked the skills to scale the company beyond a certain point. And I bet everyone would call him a jerk. Again, those were his most evident attributes.

But none of that explains why the first man was consistently successful while the second flamed out.

Do you have it in you?

That's because, deep down at his core, the first CEO was capable of venturing outside his comfort zone. He possessed the will and the strength to face down his fears and conflicts and make some really tough decisions, to do what had to be done, regardless of the risks. He challenged the status quo, whether it was in the market, in the company or in him.

The second CEO failed because he lacked that key determinant of leadership success. When push came to shove, he couldn't venture outside his comfort zone, couldn't handle tough challenges, couldn't do what had to be done, couldn't challenge the status quo. He simply didn't have it in him. And he probably bullied people because he was scared, ashamed, or both.

Look, we live and work in a complex world. And deep inside, we all have fears, conflicts, and issues. Anyone who doesn't admit that is either lying or lying to himself. And how well we handle really tough external challenges is a reflection of how willing we are to deal with things outside our own comfort zone. They're one and the same.

Any challenge that invokes your fears, conflicts or issues is, by definition, outside your comfort zone. And how well you handle that will more or less determine how far you go in your career. It's pretty black and white. You're either like the first CEO or the second. At some point in your career, you'll learn which one.