Friday, 21 June 2013

Leadership & the Capacity to Tolerate Pain



In today’s culture we hear a lot about leadership and in many ways live under the assumption that all people must aspire to some level of leadership in their lives.  Leadership does come with its benefits:  Permission is given to have influence; there is a measure of prestige and increased pay associated with leadership; leaders navigate change and shepherd visions; leadership can be a fun ride...  Often, it is also painful.  In fact, church consultant Peter Steinke states that leadership must include the capacity to tolerate pain.  This is true not only in the church world; it is also true in the business world.   We don’t hear much about this reality in leadership literature yet most leaders with whom I speak agree that pain and its partner, loneliness, are a part of the leader’s job description. 

One of the “greatest hit” articles in the Harvard Business Review is entitled Level 5 Leadership:  The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve.  Jim Collins, the author of this article, states that excellent leaders give away credit and take on critique.  This is excellent advice but in the midst of a hard go when the people around the leader have not done their job well, this is hard advice.  And it leads to the pain and loneliness leaders are required to tolerate.

When leaders work at culture change, make mistakes, engage naysayers, mediate disputes, hear critique, manage organizational failures they come face to face with the challenges and pains associated with leadership.  How leaders tolerate pain defines their leadership.  Will leaders blame others for their pain?  Will they lash out against the people they are leading?  Will they become blind to their own contribution to their pain?  Will they become destroyed by the naysayers to the degree that their capacity to shepherd the organization’s vision is compromised?  OR, will they digest (and release) the pain in order to stay grounded and focused on both the organization’s overarching vision as well as what modifications are required of them (not the others) in order to more effectively live into this vision?  Excellent leadership must include the capacity to tolerate this pain.

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