To Grow Leadership Skills, Get People Out of Their Comfort Zones

grow leadership skills

When I worked in the outdoor industry, I saw a lot of leaders forced out of their comfort zones. To survive in the backcountry, they had to use their physical and mental strength, keep an open mind, and rely on those around them for support.

Some fared better than others, and I found people’s individual identities and corporate positions didn’t determine their levels of success. Anyone could grow as a person and leader during a backcountry excursion, but only if he or she was willing to embrace the discomfort that accompanied the transformation — and you can do the same.

The High Cost of Playing It Safe

Do you remember browsing the aisles of Blockbuster and Borders? What about sharing “Kodak moments” with your family and friends? How did companies so deeply ingrained in our collective memory go bankrupt?

According to a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, those companies failed because they relied on what had always made them strong. In other words, they didn’t challenge themselves. Kodak invented the digital camera in the 1970s, but the company stubbornly stuck with film and missed a huge opportunity. That cash cow was quickly eaten by competitors who weren’t afraid to run with new technology.

Meanwhile, Apple flourished because it didn’t shy away from innovation. In the 1990s, the company was circling the drain. Steve Jobs could have stuck with what had worked in the past, but he instead challenged himself and his company. And as a result, Apple broke new ground with the iPod and iPhone, which revolutionized cellphones and knocked industry giant RIM off its pedestal.

How Crisis Leads to Growth

Challenging ourselves leads to positive growth — both physically and mentally.

Not only does learning a new skill help create brain cell connections, but exercise also helps people grow new brain cells. What’s more, Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development indicates we tend to develop consistently until we reach a point of crisis. We then either regress or, if we overcome that crisis, experience a sharp developmental increase.

In an uncomfortable environment like the backcountry, we question every decision. We don’t feel confident or secure, which forces us to reach out to each other for support and break down the barriers our ego puts up. This humility opens us up to change. We call this the “stretch zone.”

The more we put ourselves in the stretch zone, the faster we grow. I know one man who started out sweeping the floors at an organization and now leads more than 10,000 employees as the company president. Even at the top of the corporate ladder, he constantly reads leadership books and business books. He considers challenging himself the key to his success.

Shaking Leaders Out of Their Comfort Zones

The great thing about growth through a challenge is that it’s within your control. If you want to grow as a leader, try these strategies for escaping your comfort zone:

Cultivate diversity of thought. Hire people who think differently than you, who will argue with you, and who are smarter than you. You don’t need sycophants and “yes men.” You need to be challenged by authentic, positive, and loyal individuals. You need folks who are going to tell you the hard truths. These kinds of co-workers create an environment where you’re constantly being challenged to make better decisions.

Create a safe place to fail. Businesses today seem obsessed with perfection, and mistakes are often met with chastisement. Give yourself and your employees permission to fail. There is a ton of literature that proves failure is necessary for innovation. I’ll challenge you to look it up and read for yourself. See what I did there?

Challenge even your basic assumptions. No matter who you are, you’re wrong significantly more often than you’re right. If you don’t believe me, it might be time to adjust your ego. It’s OK to be wrong as long as you realize you’re headed in the wrong direction. Once you realize that, challenging your assumptions can help you avoid pitfalls you wouldn’t ordinarily recognize.

Change your environment. Luckily, you don’t have to explore the wilderness to get out of your comfort zone. Even getting out of your office building can have a positive effect. Most folks don’t realize how much their environment influences their thoughts and behaviors. Stanford Business studies have shown that something as seemingly innocuous as a room’s furniture can make people more competitive and less cooperative. Shifting environments helps your brain think in different ways, so go find your next “innovation spot.”

Read, read, and read some more. Read articles, blogs, books, e-books, or all of the above. Just read. Read about your industry and about other industries. This will force you to face opposing viewpoints and allow you to make connections between seemingly disparate concepts. A lot of “innovation” comes from repurposing an idea from one industry to another.

Hang out with your kids or grandkids. Young people are typically better inclined to learn new skills. I remember reprogramming the VCR for my mother and thinking I would never fall behind the technology curve like that. Well, I have. (How are you supposed to learn to use apps when they don’t come with directions? Stop laughing, Millennials — your time will come.) Young people challenge us to understand their world and their worldviews, forcing us out of our comfort zones in a fun, safe way.

Listen to crazy ideas. Some ideas your employees come up with might seem, frankly, batshit crazy. You don’t have to adopt every idea, but listening opens you up to different viewpoints. Even the craziest ideas usually have elements that make a moderate idea work better. Spend 10 seconds considering what changes could make a seemingly nutty idea work. Those 10 seconds could change your company’s future.

Getting out of our comfort zones is never easy — but it’s not supposed to be! Find your perfect balance of challenge and support to land yourself smack-dab in the middle of the stretch zone, and you’ll realize your true leadership potential.


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