Faced with starting a women’s cervical cancer program at 12,000 feet at the top of the world in the Himalayas was daunting. I had no idea how I was going to do it. I had my colposcope (a microscope to see the cervix) and a few speculums that I hoped would make the two-day trip through the mountains on a barely passable road. It was physically uncomfortable to be in the space of the unknown (that in addition to the altitude and the cramped bodies of six other people bouncing about in the vehicle with me). What was it going to be like? Who would be there? Would we have electricity? Will I have a bed and a real roof over my head? It seemed an impossible goal with all kinds of problems lurking, but I just took slow deep breaths through the mental, emotional, and physical discomfort. Why? Because I was committed to our medical mission and the wonderful Tibetan Buddhist people at the other end of the jeep ride.
We can learn, through practice, how to be comfortable with our own discomfort and the discomfort of others. It is a practice, like a mindfulness practice. You might have heard the military expression, “embrace the suck,” but I don’t find that very empowering. Instead, I embrace my commitment – my commitment to a certain goal, outcome, or even way of being I consciously choose. This “embrace the commitment” mindset is a skill that I have found useful in my leadership (and in my life generally) for getting comfortable with the uncomfortable in leadership. Having my commitment front and center in my mind creates my reality and the actions that follow. In the Himalayas, I embraced my commitment to be of service to a population of people I really care about; with the outcome or goal of bringing western medicine and cervical cancer screening to an area underserved. That is my “why” to practicing getting comfortable with my discomfort in that dang crowded jeep, bumping around and into each other, and the uncomfortable experience of facing unknown circumstances and possible problems. I was committed to that higher goal and in service to that commitment. I had to have that “big-ass why,” I call it, to not turn around and go hop on a plane back to America’s highways and comfort. Believe me – I used to be afraid of heights and claustrophobic. In other words, I had lots of practice reminding myself (mindfulness) of my commitment to a higher purpose on that jeep ride.
Listening to each other as highly capable
Another key to becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable is to take on listening to ourselves and others as highly capable people. There is little room in a project worth doing for looking at each other as small and clueless people. If I created in my mind that the other team members working with me were clueless, rather than capable of problem-solving, what would we have accomplished? Very little. We tend to pay attention to what we listen to and look for. Like, you decide to get a red sports car, and all of a sudden, you see a whole bunch of them on the highway. You can’t not see them! If we want a competent and capable team that performs well, we have to start looking and listening for their capability and their commitment.
And yes, the discomfort may continue to be there, but my commitment wins every time I am present. This requires mindfulness, deep breaths, and practice, practice, practice. This mindset and context can shift a situation or team to a whole new paradigm of performance and fulfillment.
What is your commitment and purpose? Inspiring yourself and your team around a mutual commitment and knowing each other’s individual commitments/goals, combined with curiosity about members’ worldview and what makes them unique, is magical. Magical, I say. Like having the keys to the kingdom of performance. The reason to consider taking this “embrace the commitment” approach to leadership is because team members start performing for their own reasons (rather than yours). That’s magic.
Robyn Alley-Hay is an obstetrician-gynecologist and can be reached at her self-titled site, Dr. Robyn Alley-Hay.
Image credit: Robyn Alley-Hay