We all have our comfort zones in terms of our leadership styles and the techniques we like to use. Some of us are direct (or, in my case, extremely direct), some are quiet, some are creative, others like motivational speakers. Our styles work for us. They’ve been honed over the years based on experiences we’ve had – both good and bad. Those experiences have told us what works and what doesn’t and we’ve often incorporated those learnings into our leadership styles.
But what happens when we’re put in a new situation where our comfortable leadership style isn’t effective?
In those situations, do you act like an 8-year-old boy?
This past weekend I spent some time in California with my parents, my sister, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend’s 8-year-old son. He’s a great kid. Polite and well-mannered. Tons of energy (I watched him do about a bazillion laps in the pool). Incredibly technology savvy (the things he could do with a tablet were pretty amazing).
One of the big goals with the little guy was getting him to expand his food palate. Like any typical young boy, his palate is stubbornly undeveloped and comfortable. His food groups consist of mac n’ cheese, nuggets, pizza, and pasta. Not exactly a rainbow of flavors. But the thing, is he’s missing out. He’s staying in his comfort zone. Our explicit challenge was to get him to try a bunch of new things and expand outside of that zone. What he learned from this experience can help you be a better leader. Here are the lessons:
The Comfort Zone is Boring and Doesn’t Always Work
While I agree that mac n’ cheese and nuggets are delicious (and likely responsible for my recent heart attack), they don’t always work as a balanced diet. That imbalance of diversity is likely going to stunt his growth and development at some point. On top of that, I’m sure at some level he’s bored and dissatisfied with his meal choices. They get boring and predictable which drains the excitement out of mealtime.
Are you bored with your job at all? Do you feel like you’re not learning, challenged, and growing? Has it been a while since you’ve been promoted or given new responsibilities? If so, you might be in a leadership style comfort zone rut. Recognize your leadership techniques turn into a steady diet of mac n’ cheese and nuggets if you don’t regularly add new styles to the menu of the work you do. And if you constantly rely on the same old tried-and-true techniques, the powers that be might view you as one dimensional and inflexible in your leadership style which could lead your career to stagnate. Try pushing out of that comfort zone sometimes.
Find Someone to Push You
All of us took turns on pushing his palate. My sister offered him some curry pork. His dad encouraged him to try the persimmon at the farmer’s market. I encouraged him to have a bite of the ahi tuna appetizer at dinner. My father gave him a French fry with malt vinegar on it (my dad can be a bit of an ass like that sometimes). He loved all the new flavors (except that bitter nasty malt vinegar French fry). The thing is, he tried all these new things because he had people around him who he trusted encouraging him and guiding him to the new flavors (I don’t think he trusts my dad anymore though). Without those guides to put appropriate flavors and tastes in front of him, I doubt he would have known where to begin trying new stuff. He would be a lot more apprehensive about anything new he selected on his own which would lead him to choose “safe” menu items (“gee, I’ll have the spaghetti because I know I already like macaroni”) or, worse, try something new that he shouldn’t (“I don’t know what nuclear wasabi peas are but they sound cool. Maybe I’ll pop a handful into my mouth…”).
Find someone (a mentor, a leadership coach) who can lead you to those new leadership techniques and styles. Select that person because they have a broader “technique palate” than you do and because they know you well (or can get to know you well) so their recommendations will likely be a fit with what you’re comfortable with and capable of.
When he went to try something new, it’s not like he took a heaping helping of that scary new stuff. No. It was a persimmon taster on a toothpick at the farmer’s market. It was a small bite of curry pork on a fork. It was a dab of malt vinegar on a French fry. His small experiments minimized his “I’m gonna barf in my mouth” risk. If he didn’t like something, he hadn’t made a big commitment to it. If he did like it, he could always go back for more.
How does this apply to your personal development as a leader? If you’re looking to try on new skills and techniques, identify low-risk situations where you can try a new approach. Pick a small interaction with a subordinate to try being inquisitive instead of your usual direct approach. Select a small project meeting to try being direct if you’re normally reserved and quiet. If the technique doesn’t work, you don’t have to keep using it (although I encourage trying new techniques more than once so you can get comfortable and effective with them).
After a few days of deliberate, guided new food taste tests, his palate is much more diverse and he found a bunch of new things he likes. He has a broader perspective on the world and is going to be more comfortable going forward venturing outside his comfort zone. He’ll be more worldly and more capable of tackling new culinary challenges in his future. He can also still have mac n’ cheese and nuggets whenever he likes, too – the old comfort zone will still be available to him.
If you expand the types of leadership techniques and styles you’re capable of and comfortable with using, you’ll be a more effective leader. You’ll be better prepared for new leadership situations (leading to new roles and promotions). You’ll be more challenged and hence more excited at work. You won’t be that stale, one-dimensional leader who has trouble adapting to new scenarios. So get out there, find a guide/mentor/coach, and expand your leadership palate today.