Last week I got a Tdap booster vaccination. My arm is still a bit sore. I knew it was going to hurt, because the nurse who gave me the vaccination warned me, “The needle will hurt a bit, and the injection site will be sore for a few days.” I took the shot anyway, because I knew it was good for me.
But in other areas of my life, I confuse pain and harm. And I find other leaders too often make this same mistake.
Pain is physical or emotional discomfort, while harm is injury or damage.
Imagine a team that has an individual who isn’t performing, and that the poor performance is due to a lack of fit, a lack of skill, or a lack of motivation. There are different solutions for each of these root causes, but leaving the individual in place and doing nothing is a losing proposition. To quote Colin Powell, “Hope is not a strategy.” Of course the conversations that are required to address such situations are hard– they’ll be somewhere between mildly uncomfortable and nearly intolerable. But just because they hurt doesn’t mean they harm. Discussing the poor performance with him, finding him a new role, or eventually exiting him from the organization are all highly beneficial activities. These actions can hurt, but they help.
Of course too much pain, in and of itself, can be damaging. Torture can cause psychological wounds. Posttraumatic stress is real. “Emotional scarring” isn’t just psychobabble. But I’ve found most humans are far stronger than we give them credit for.
Too often we react to pain or suffering in our lives like a two-year-old, instead of like an adult. The toddler doesn’t understand the value of the event (benefit minus cost), so he complains loudly and bitterly. But as adults, we have choices.
When we consciously choose a painful path, the pain is often more tolerable. Seventeen years ago, my wife Kim delivered our first baby– Serae. Kim had heard about how painful it was to give birth, so she got an epidural and a half-dose of a narcotic to ease the pain. With our second child– Kael– Kim again received an epidural. With our third baby, Kim chose a different route. She decided to have our third child naturally, without any pain medication. Zeff Luther Neidigh arrived after several hours of intense laboring. Kim was able to relax through even the monster contractions, taking the pain and moving forward. She described the challenges of labor as “productive pain,” and it accomplished something magnificent.
It takes a measure of discipline to fight through productive pain to get to the victory, or the production, or the growth. When we think of all pain as bad, we tend either to give up when things start hurting, or to avoid things we think will hurt.
Painful experiences can create new insights, growth, and resilience. Like many philosophers over the ages, I believe suffering can be a great teacher. “Something isn’t right here. Pay attention. You’re too attached.”
Over the past few months, my friend Daniel Fuller has given me some wise counsel. He has helped me see (in a kind way) some of the less productive aspects of my personality and behavior. I have come to the conclusion that I have unintentionally run roughshod over many people in my life. Reaching this insight and thinking through my past (and considering what it means for my future) are all painful. I feel humbled and embarrassed. It’s hard to “sit in this” and not try to run away. And yet I have no doubt that it is good and healthy and productive for me to gain this new knowledge and perspective.
When Harm Doesn’t Hurt
Sometimes things that don’t hurt can still cause harm. Our comfort and complacency can cause us to get weaker and less resilient. It isn’t painful for me to sit on the couch, binge on Breaking Bad, and eat a six-pack of Reese’s Big Cups washed down with some whole milk. In fact, it can be quite pleasurable and satisfying. But it isn’t doing my cardiovascular system any favors. And “medicating” myself by escaping into a TV drama (and escaping into food) may prevent me from processing life’s challenges in a healthy way.
Embrace the Suck*
At times, we don’t have the luxury of choosing to avoid pain or pursue it. Sometimes it just finds us. In those times, as the U.S. Marine Corps taught me, you can at least embrace the suck. The situation isn’t pleasant, and you’re not going to enjoy it, but you have to get though it, and you can get through it stronger than when you started. Not surprisingly, it’s easier to get through it when multiple people are going through it together, unified in their embrace of the suck.
Embracing the suck can help us get better at practicing painful but beneficial behaviors. As we practice, we may find they get less painful over time, or that our tolerance for the pain increases. We can train ourselves to run faster without gasping for air, to have courageous conversations without panicking, to be our authentic selves at work without feeling completely vulnerable and exposed, to wade into uncertainty and take risks without grabbing onto the first life preserver that floats by, or to sit in painful emotions and process them productively without running away or numbing ourselves.
*Apologies to my grandma Mimi (RIP), who was always scandalized by my use of the word ‘suck.’
Leading Through Pain
I’ve never seen an important leadership role that allows the leader to consistently “stay the course” without making changes. Every leader is in the business of revolution or evolution or both. When we invite and inspire change, those affected may feel loss, anxiety, frustration, confusion, or anger. Taking action that causes others to feel pain is part of being a leader.
Of course, intentionally inflicting pain without compensatory benefit isn’t good leadership; it’s cruelty. And inflicting pain without acknowledging it is like the nurse who surprises you with a needle stick or calls you a baby for wincing—you’ll never trust her again.
We can lead well by kindly pointing out where others are complacent, to help them wake up. We can help each other choose to walk through pain, when the benefits outweigh the costs. We can point out the difference between pain and harm, and encourage others to persist through productive pain. And the most important thing we can do as leaders is walk alongside others in their pain, with grace, empathy, and hope for the growth to come.