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ATD Blog

Opportunity Works


Tue May 14 2013

Opportunity Works-cac9d216df162425ad5d09d0650293037ff8048b5558374f598cbb2da2854c43

As discussed in the previous blog posts in this series, opportunity is important to leadership because it’s important to the people being led. There’s one critical point that needs to be addressed: the pursuit of opportunity often involves purposeful discomfort.

People grow, progress, and develop to the extent that they are pursuing opportunities that put them outside of their comfort zones. For this reason, opportunities are uncomfortable. Ginny Rometty, the CEO of IBM, has it right when she says, “Growth and comfort don’t coexist.”


If you’re a leader, your job, insofar as it provides meaningful growth opportunities, is to make people uncomfortable. It may surprise you to hear that, but good opportunities create discomfort. When you are asked to lead a group of employees for your first time, that is an opportunity. It is also uncomfortable. When you are asked to make a new product pitch to the board of directors, that is an opportunity. It is also uncomfortable. When you are slotted to be your boss’s successor, that is an opportunity. It is also uncomfortable. If something is uncomfortable, there’s a good chance that it provides an opportunity to grow.

As a leader, the trick is to provide uncomfortable opportunities that provoke growth, not set people up for failure. As a leader, you must supply tasks or situations that are enough of a stretch that they motivate people to move outside of their comfort zones, but not so far outside that they debilitate performance. Your job as a leader is to help people grow, progress, and develop—not demoralize them or cause them to stew with resentment.

So what does purposeful discomfort look like? A large Chicago-based construction company uses purposeful discomfort as a key feature of its leadership succession program. The bimonthly leadership workshop starts with each of the 25 up-and-coming leaders giving a two-minute presentation on the progress they’ve made using the leadership concepts they were introduced to during the previous workshops. Keep in mind that the presentations are videotaped and given in front of the company’s most senior executives—including the CEO. Stepping outside of their comfort zones by delivering these presentations serves two purposes for the leaders: It holds them accountable to actually implementing the program concepts, and it forces them to deal with the discomfort that so often accompanies public speaking.

The payoff is the emerging leaders’ growth in confidence. When you watch the videotapes of the participants, you can observe the arc of their progress. The assurance that these leaders gain in giving presentations during the course of the 18-month program is nothing short of amazing. Early on, most of the leaders act like awkward teenagers, stumbling through their two minutes, hemming and hawing and “umming.” But by the last workshop, everyone is able to stand and speak with confidence and poise. The leaders grow because they did something uncomfortable, on purpose.

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