Leadership and the Comfort Zone

Ron Jones

I have often wondered how we should prepare those we expect to take on leadership roles in our organizations. There are many leadership programs in place and a considerable amount of money is spent developing and implementing the right program for the organization concerned.

It often seems that the only people who get access to such programs are those already in positions of senior management or those on some ‘fast-track’ program for high achievers. Of course, many of these individuals will have been chosen because of their inherent capacity to already meet some of the challenges of their positions. The expectation therefore is that they will rise to the occasion when the organization needs them to take on a change management exercise, or manage a restructure, or some other significant event.

We also expect that our managers can develop much of their leadership capability through a particular program: that somehow they might acquire the competencies necessary for leading by example, modeling the way or something similar.

My personal view, from reading much of the literature on leadership and from hearing of the personal experiences of those we admire as leaders, is that leadership characteristics are typically highlighted through the behavior which is exhibited when those persons are forced to act outside of their comfort zone. I cannot think of anyone who I would describe or characterize as a leader because of their behavior in doing what is normally within their day-to-day sphere of comfort. If you think about the circumstances in which we describe the role of those who have ‘stepped,' it is always set in a context of the unknown.

Our traditional method of selecting people for senior roles where leadership is required is to choose those who have performed well in what they already do. It is little wonder that many of them fail to deliver the inspirational leadership required of them.

This suggests to me that HR practitioners within organizations have to look for alternative ways of identifying the leadership potential within their organizations.

One area to explore is the development of various experiences which are specifically designed to take managers out of their comfort zone and provide challenges directly linked to key leadership competencies.

For example, a structured program of work providing volunteer assistance within a disability service organization or assisting the long term unemployed might be specific ways in which potential leaders can be confronted through being taken out of their comfort zone. Being responsible for delivering a particular project within such an agency will provide challenges that directly relate to many of the competencies in any leadership profile and allow for a more effective means of assessing future leadership potential.

The bottom line: HR practitioners need to think outside their own comfort zone to provide more effective leadership solutions for their organizations.