Leadership Forum: Boldly going outside your comfort zone
You know that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach, the sweaty palms and the voice in the back of your head asking you if you are sure that you know what you are doing? The not-so-quiet desire to run away and head straight back to where you came from? Me too. These are but a few of the symptoms that occur when we are outside our comfort zones.
We all prefer to be comfortable. Although some leaders are very good at envisioning, implementing and driving change, as people we all tend to crave the familiar and to gravitate toward that which we know to be safe. Even change junkies have comfort zones and often what makes them sweat is standing still.
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines comfort zone as “the level at which one functions with ease and familiarity.” Functioning with ease and familiarity as a leader is both outstanding and desired, but not when we intend to learn, develop and grow.
I have heard world-renowned success coach Anthony Robbins explain that “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” I completely agree with Robbins: it is simply not possible to achieve new and great things, nor to take our results to the next level, unless and until we are willing to push ourselves outside our personal comfort zones. In fact, I will go so far as to suggest that this is the only true way to learn.
I do not believe I have ever met a truly successful person who has not repeatedly thrust himself or herself well outside of the personal comfort zone. The highest-performance people are those who are willing to dive into unknown territory, at the expense of their personal comfort, for the purposes of learning and growing.
Leaders experience the very same feelings as anyone else. Intentionally thrusting yourself outside your comfort zone and into a completely new task, role, position, truck, crew, shift, station or department can be extremely difficult, challenging and stressful.
Leaders have the challenge of having to learn not only new tasks and procedures, but they must learn about new people, new cultures and new environments as they continue to develop and progress.
So why would anyone want to intentionally trade the known and familiar for the unknowns, risks and stresses associated with a new role, team or environment? The very best leaders have learned that this is the only place they grow and develop.
Growth and perspective are gained by consciously and intentionally trading familiarity, routine and easy for new roles and challenges that push you to a place you have never been. Accountability and responsibility will test your ability to change, learn, lead and adapt. Developmental opportunities enable you to identify what you don’t know and force you to recognize and acknowledge where your weaknesses lie; only then can you find ways to turn those weaknesses into strengths.
Preparing for and learning to be a leader is a long and difficult road. A well-respected fire chief once explained to me that strong steel can only be made by repeatedly subjecting good steel stock to high levels of heat. Each time the steel is heated, it gets stronger. Regardless of whether you are a company officer leading a crew, a senior officer leading a division or platoon, or the fire chief leading your department, leadership works the same way: the more we subject ourselves to challenging situations, the stronger leaders we become.
If we are serious about achieving success as fire-service leaders, we must first acknowledge what will be required to succeed. Do not shy away from new projects or teams – look for them. Do not sit quietly in a corner hoping you will not be noticed – get out there and be willing to try. We simply can’t fool ourselves into thinking we have all the skills necessary to succeed – we must test ourselves. Volunteer for a committee, lead a team, take a course, research and author a report, deliver an important presentation. Most importantly, identify and admit your weaknesses and then seek out the coaching you need to turn them into strengths.
The public expectation of today’s fire-service leaders is rapidly increasing. Fire department service levels will be assessed on value proposition and return on investment. Leadership decisions will be judged on visible impact and validated result.
Are we prepared to leave our comfort zones to obtain the skills, experience and perspective that tomorrow’s fire services will demand? Our success will depend on it.
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