Simon Terry

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Leaders Aren’t Painkillers

No team wants to hear they need pain. We wish for less anxiety, pain and challenge at work from time to time. We can wish our leaders would take the pain away. However, leaders aren’t there to be painkillers. Nobody says:

‘Sounds like a problem. Take two leaders and call me in the morning.’

Leadership is the technology of realising human potential. Effort, challenges, pain and anxiety are a key part of that process. Leaders who remove all pain underperform.

– in a complex fast changing world obstacles are the work. There is no steady painless state. Relief is illusory and temporary.
– pain is feedback: the pain we want leaders to remove is a signal we need to change.
– the right challenge is productive: human potential is realised against a growing challenge and developed through effort. We learn by doing not by being led.
– tension and conflict is a reason to examine our thinking, create new approaches, explore the broader system and collaborate better
– painkilling creates dependence where the leader is expected to solve greater and greater levels of challenge and the team just rests until things are painless .

We tell ourselves we need pain in many polite ways when we talk about the importance of flow, tension, mastery, practice, learning, empowerment and effort. Nobody likes to endorse pain. No team wants to hear that they need it. Sugar coating just leaves teams unready for the effort and change involved.

Great leaders don’t remove all pain. They engage teams in solving their own challenges. They work with others to remove the unbearable but maintain the productive pain.


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