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Success isn't comfortable: Lessons in leadership from the Human Capital Institute

confused executive

There is value in discomfort--business value. If you happened to attend the Human Capital Institute's Learning and Leadership Development Conference held in Boston last month (MIT Sloan Executive Education was a sponsor), you heard more than one session speaker tout the benefits of being squarely outside of one's comfort zone. According to speakers like MIT Sloan's own Hal Gregersen, who presented a keynote speech at the conference, business leaders need to get uncomfortable to be successful.

Three ways discomfort drives success

We generally think of people who enjoy uncomfortable situations as thrill seekers--or masochists. Most people don't take pleasure in being nervous, humbled, or overly challenged. We are conditioned to appear as confident and competent in front of our peers as humanly possible. And we avoid tasks that are out of our wheelhouse because, frankly, we don’t want to screw up. However, in the context of leadership development and business success, staying comfortable is actually a dangerous game. And, most importantly, a missed opportunity.

Here are three takeaways from the recent HCI conference that remind us of the value in discomfort.

Executives who learn to stretch their comfort levels and ask tough questions make better leaders and innovators.

Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center and a Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan Executive Education, says it's all too easy for senior leaders to isolate themselves in a "good news cocoon" where everyone says things are fine and no one challenges your ideas or asks tough questions. It's comfy, and it's dangerous. Powerful organizational and industrial forces can keep any senior leader from asking (or hearing) uncomfortable questions, creating a perilous, answer-centric environment rife with blind spots. They lose sight of the big picture of how things really are, ultimately missing opportunities for innovation and increasing the risk of disruption.

"Executives who ask and invite probing questions are much better equipped to manage threats and spot opportunities," said Gregersen in his keynote speech, The Leader's Dilemma: Asking Tough Questions (Before Someone Else Does). Having interviewed hundreds of the world's most innovative CEOs as part of his ongoing leadership research, he finds that those who seek out uncomfortable, risky, and challenging situations in search of a line of inquiry have greater success at leading innovative products and process. By becoming better questioners, leaders unlock new solutions, innovations, and processes, ultimately creating greater business value.

You can learn more about Hal Gregersen's innovation courses and sign up here.


Being uncomfortable and trying new things makes people more mentally flexible and creative. And science proves it.

Wanda Curlee, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at American Public University's School of Business, where she teaches leadership and organizational behavior courses. She is also a program management leader experienced in global markets, government projects, and highly complex IT, information systems. In her talk, "Neuroscience in Leadership: Using Cognitive Techniques to Navigate Teams Through Change," Curlee moved the conversation from behavioral science to cognitive science, sharing how neuroscience techniques can be utilized to assist leaders and teams with change management issues. A main theme of her talk centered on the fact that our brains continue to develop--to our very last day--and create new neuropathways (as proven by the latest neuroscience research). By being uncomfortable and trying different things, we can teach our brains new tricks and new ways of doing things. We can become more mentally flexible and, as a result, more creative and innovative.

Curlee profiled three different types of reasoning and the leaders who typify them: the "zoom in" reasoners (like CFOs), "zoom out" reasoners (CEO types), and "zoom deep and wide" reasoners (C-suite visionaries).

"Teams need to come together and do different things," said Curlee. "The 'zoom in' people need to try zooming out and taking on leadership roles. Take a 'zoom out' person and ask them to do the detail work. This will make people feel uncomfortable for a while, but it will also create new pathways." Of course, Curlee recommends against throwing people into the water to watch them flail in their new task. Instead, help them feel less overwhelmed by showing them the way--help them understand how to problem solve it. By being forced to look at task from a different perspective or in a different function, executives can acquire a broader, more comprehensive view of their company's processes, products, and resources.

(You can learn more about the application of neuroscience research to leadership development in the MIT Sloan Executive Education programs, Neuroscience for Leadership and Applied Neuroscience: Unleashing Brain Power for You and Your People.)


Accepting uncertainty, ambiguity, and change creates a comfort level with the unknown--an educated fearlessness that today’s leaders require.

Julie Hiipakka, Director of Learning at SapientNitro, led a fascinating presentation on her company's initiative to nurture STEM talent by creating "CMTO University"--an executive development program to grow marketing technologists at scale. Hiipakka walked us through the fundamental shift advertising firms are experiencing as marketing and technology continue to converge. Agencies like SapientNitro require experts who can speak both languages of creative marketing and IT. Hiipakka and her team pitched the company's most senior leaders on the idea of an internal university that would help develop these marketing technologists. They got approval--but then they had to build the program.

Hiipakka's team had to figure out how to build and launch CMTO University in five months with, at the start, no curriculum to speak of. So they approached it with an agile framework, building it quarter by quarter, knowing only the content of the quarter they were about to enter.

"We decided to be honest and let participants know we didn't have a real curriculum," said Hiipakka. "It absolutely drove technologists nuts. But it taught all the participants to live with uncertainty and ambiguity. We added more and more surprise assignments and began to create, among the teams, a comfort level with the unknown. In the real world, our talent needs to be able to adjust."

In the second year, Hiipakka's team decided to stick with their approach of simultaneously designing and delivering. Their agile methods, leadership development practices, and start-up mindset used to build the program have been applied to other programs since. While it had been a terrifying experience at first, everyone shared the overall mission and decided that fear was a natural part of creating something important. Learning to embrace uncertainty, whether as program designers or as participants, made them all better at their jobs.

The experts agree: in an increasingly complex world, those who are willing to take risks, step out of their comfort zone, ask the tough questions, and humble themselves in the process will likely reap the biggest rewards.

And you can discover more about upcoming Human Capital Institute events on their website.

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