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Leadership development: Learning to be relentless, agile — and uncomfortable

07/29/2021 By


Spend Matters welcomes this guest post from Daryl Hammett, Amazon Web Services’ Global Head of LM and Operations, about leadership and optimism in the workplace. 

One of my favorite leadership development stories is about how the lobster grows. This underwater animal has been around for thousands of years, and we can learn a powerful lesson on how we can grow as leaders from how these animals deal with situations when they are uncomfortable.

A lobster is a soft animal that lives inside a rigid shell that does not expand. So how can the lobster grow? Well, as the lobster gets bigger that shell becomes very confining, and the lobster feels uncomfortable and under pressure. It goes under a rock formation, to protect itself from predatory fish, casts off the shell and produces a new one. Eventually that shell becomes very uncomfortable as it grows, and so it goes back under the rocks … the lobster repeats this numerous times.

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Dr. Abraham Twerski said in his talk “Grow Through Adversity” that the stimulus for the lobster to be able to grow is that it feels uncomfortable and stressed.

Are you comfortable being uncomfortable? How do you leverage stressful situations? Do you see them as an opportunity or a barrier in reaching your goals?

Experience and leadership

Another powerful leadership experience that I witnessed was in a donut shop not too far from my house. I stepped up to the counter to order as a mother with her young son approached the other clerk to give their order.

I heard the clerk say to the child, “What can I get you, young man?”

He responded, “I’ll take the white-covered donuts with sprinkles.”

The clerk said to him, “I’m sorry, I just sold the last one.”

The child turned to his mother, screaming, “Mom, that’s not fair! They just sold the last one.”

His mother looked at him calmly and said, “I’m sorry, son, life is not fair. Pick another donut or don’t have a donut at all.”

That is a powerful example of what we deal with as leaders every day. Our employees come to work excited and eager to engage. As leaders, we come to work to motivate and inspire. While we want to point our employees in the right direction, we are all heading toward a task, objective or challenge. We face it with great optimism and excitement.

But there are times we come to a challenge only to find that our dream has already been sold, put on hold or not supported — just like that young man’s donut. We may not have the right people, budget, resources or tools to succeed at our goals. Our enthusiasm and motivation about upcoming tasks do not always meet with the tools we need to make it happen.

So, what do we do? Now what?

Are you a relentless, resourceful leader?

Looking back at the course of my career, I find that the relentless and resourceful leaders are the ones who say, “I am willing to try something different,” when faced with an insuperable hill or daunting task. They grow through their challenges. They say, “This is not what I anticipated, but I am going to have an agile and flexible attitude in approaching it.”

Now, what does that take? It takes the relentless and resourceful to be divergent thinkers in a world that does not always provide the right resources. Those leaders take on tasks where they may not be prepared or face unexpected obstacles. They are divergent in the way they approach objectives. These relentless and resourceful people always look for plan B and C. They find partners and networks to achieve goals. I believe the relentless and resourceful leaders are those of us who say, “I am going to take this as an opportunity to learn.”

They are very comfortable being uncomfortable.

Are you a decisive, agile leader?

The decisive and agile leaders choose to dive right in, no matter what uncomfortable obstacles they encounter. They teach their teams that no matter what happens, they will get through it together. Imagine that mother saying, “If you try this and don’t like it, it’s OK.”

She could make her son feel comfortable trying something new, overcoming the obstacle. The same is true for your employees. It is OK to feel uncomfortable when things do not go as planned. The decisive and agile leaders learned to steady their responses and reactions, even when uneasy. Therefore, they have good stability no matter what turbulence comes their way.

Life is not fair. Now what?

The “Now what” is moving on! Even if only in small, incremental steps, you cannot stay sedentary — MOVE FORWARD.

We must start, like leadership, to embrace that everything will not always proceed as expected. We must build interdependent planning, relationships, processes and systems that enable us to construct, apply and add other options to help us when things do not proceed as planned.

Are we as leaders modeling behaviors to teach people it is OK to take another route or try something different?

We want to create an innovative culture but do not model innovative leadership. That is a problem. We can do better to challenge ourselves to be different.

Don’t become a ‘Why Me?’ leader

Many people find themselves in the position where we decide, sadly, to disengage. As we work with teams, we often get paired with people who are different from what we are used to. Unfortunately, our current virtual world does not allow us to build the workplace intimacy developed when working in the same environment. That may create obstacles. Some may become uncomfortable and think “Why me?” They have a choice to make — engage or disengage.

Questions to ask yourself when this happens:

Do I feel comfortable failing or no longer being the expert in the room? Am I willing to struggle? Am I ready to learn? Am I willing to evolve and adapt? We must move on. We must make a choice.

That child’s mother taught him that trying different things are OK, but you must decide.

As a leader, are we educating our team to try something new — and will you be their rock of support during the evolution?

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