Leadership is Not Comfortable

I said last week that I would "push back" against some of the things I learned at ASAE & The Center's CEO Symposium. There were times during the presentations where I felt the speakers made some generically accurate statements, yet overlooked some important complexity in the process.

One example was a point they made related to culture and process. As association executives, we are working with volunteer leaders who (in most cases) are NOT association executives. They come from a different field, which has its own culture, processes, norms, expectations, etc. The speaker made the point that to the extent we can make our association's processes similar to the way things are done in that industry, the more comfortable our volunteer leaders will be and the more smoothly our processes will run.

At a high level, this is true. If we force our own processes on them, they are likely to start resisting the message simply because they don't like the medium. In the association I manage, I've been tweaking my financial reporting and budgeting process to present information in a format that I hope makes more sense to my volunteer leaders. It's a challenge, because the association's finances run on an accrual basis with income and expenses concentrated unevenly in certain parts of the year, but their industry is much more about quickly scanning the regular monthly cash flow.

So I'm all for making adjustments, but there's more to this issue that we did not get to discuss in the symposium. Sometimes comfortable is good, and sometimes it's not. Earlier this year I wrote a post about freedom not being comfortable. Comfortable is rarely a stretch goal! There are times when a system NEEDS some discomfort in order to grow and develop. There are times where the dominant ways of thinking and seeing things need to be explicitly challenged in order for the real opportunities to be discovered. Knowing when to push people out of their comfort zones is a critical leadership capacity.


  1. 25.06.2009 at 10:56 am

    well from a political perspective there’s always something to be said for making people as comfortable as possible, esp volunteers. but yes, agreed, all too often avoidance of conflict and pain becomes the goal regardless of other outcomes, both from leaders and in interaction of the rank and file. ensuing problems then often lead to the other extreme . . . but i don’t assume discomfort is always the path to righteousness either. but surely, if one is to lead effectively, one must have the capacity to handle occasionally being the bad guy causing discomfort, . . . some folks never learn that separate skill, of how to handle being momentarily despised or thought stupid, and that’s an important skill to have i think. conflict management vs conflict avoidance . . . –jl

  2. 25.06.2009 at 11:26 am

    I have been working with Hildy Gottlieb’s Pollyanna Principles (http://pollyannaprinciples.org/) in the last couple of months which includes looking at systems. Pollyanna Principle #6: Individuals will go where systems lead them.
    Yes, system change can be perceived as uncomfortable by the people involved in it. The Pollyanna Principles would also say, if the systems are aimed at creating the visionary change these associations want to make, they will be inspired and energized. Steps toward the future are so much easier to take than just reworking the way things are currently done.

  3. 25.06.2009 at 3:08 pm

    Jamie, I think associations tend to conflate comfort and competence, and that disconnect is present in your post. More than anything right now, we need leaders who understand what it means to lead in a new way, and associations need to do a much, much better job of preparing their leaders to be successful in fulfilling those new responsibilities. We need leadership competence to become as systemic as leadership itself.
    Being comfortable isn’t anywhere in the leadership job description, however, and I question whether making changes to the organization with the intention of trying to make others comfortable is advisable. It’s one thing to alter processes to make them simpler and easier (and thus more useful) for staff and volunteers. It is another to change how an association does its work because leaders express amorphous personal or cultural discomfort. We’ve been doing that for years, and I don’t believe it has served as well.

  4. 26.06.2009 at 4:10 pm

    I think the pragmatic executive finds a balance between making reasonable accommodations (changing the financial report as you are doing) that might enhance volunteer productivity, comfort, and effectiveness while helping volunteers make similar changes to conform more to the culture of the work they are now doing: the volunteer leadership of the association.
    It’s not their profession and they need to remember that the skills that serve them well in that arena may or may not be helpful in their volunteer role.
    Ideally, I would want that conversation to occur out of the “us-them” arena and more tied to mission/purpose, vision, and the results that need to be produced for their stakeholders and those they serve.