At 5:30 A.M. I stumbled to the bathroom, jamming my pinky toe on the corner of the cabinet. The pain shot up my leg, jarring my foggy brain into full-awake mode. As I sank to the floor, a sick feeling crept over my insides. One second ago I was thinking about the day ahead, but now I only had one thought: How can I make this pain stop?
When something hurts, we want the pain to end right away. If you’ve ever suffered a break or sprain, you know it demands your full attention; the misery focuses your brain with laser acuity on the offended appendage. With my injured toe, I certainly hadn’t been thinking about it a second ago. But now, I couldn’t think of anything else.
Author Sam Chand in Leadership Pain says there can be great benefits to the pain we experience in leadership. It forms and refines us. It focuses our attention on areas that were previously ignored. It speaks loudly through the moments of misery, and if we lean into it, it can become our greatest teacher.
When I bump up against opposition, angst, failure, or anything painful in my leadership, I look for the quickest fix. Sometimes I start with a mental brush off: Just keep going, and it will go away. Sometimes I’ll call on its lazy stepsister, avoidance: It’s not that bad! Stop worrying and think about something else. Sometimes I play the blame game: That wasn’t my fault—she dropped the ball. And other times I will sink into shame: I’ve read everything I can. When am I going to learn to be a good leader?
But pain is always trying to tell us something. My stubbed toe was shouting at me to take a minute and assess the damage. Luckily, it was no worse than a torn toenail and a bit of swelling. Usually the difficulties we encounter in leadership deserve a larger pause. Is my attitude out of alignment? Are there areas of growth I have been avoiding and need to address? Do I need to develop courage and face something head on instead of simply wishing it would improve?
Here’s what Chand says: Growth equals change, change equals loss, loss equals pain, and therefore being a leader means I’m going to experience pain. I can deny it or try to hide from it, but if I’m going to commit to leading well, there will be pain. The question isn’t how can I avoid or stop it. The question is: How will I let it be my best teacher? Here are some things I’m learning to do.
Know that pain is part of the journey. I used to think good leaders led so well that their journey was easy. Not so. Good leaders tackle hard things and face uncertainty and fear on a regular basis. They have moments of regret and worry like I do. Just because I’m experiencing pain, it doesn’t mean I’m a lousy leader—it means I have an open door to become a better one.
Embrace it and make it my friend. When I pretend something’s not painful, nobody wins. God, the creator of emotions, allows me to experience painful emotions for a reason. He has big things to say to me when I’m lonely, exhausted, or discouraged. But I need to acknowledge the painful moments and lean in. I’m learning to reframe my questions during the pain. Instead of God, why aren’t you changing these circumstances? I’m learning to say, God, what is it you want to say to me? Sometimes his answer is simply, Daughter, you are enough. I love you. The gap between where I am today as a leader and where God wants me to be can be bridged by the way I embrace the pain he enables me to endure.
Be thankful for what comes next. I don’t have to pretend to like painful experiences in the moment, but I can look back from the other side with gratitude. I’m a better leader after I honestly face criticism and realize it didn’t kill me. I’m a more empathetic, compassionate leader after a failure once I experience the stamina it takes to get up and try again. It’s a powerful thing to admit that I wouldn’t have learned those critical lessons any other way. I can be thankful for what pain helps me become.
So when the pain inevitably comes and you begin to question why you’re leading, remember that pain is a natural part of this process. Pain will make you a better leader. And when you’ve made your way through the pain to the other side, I hope you take time to reach back and help those of us who are still wading through it.