Comfortably Numb

“You can be comfortable if you don’t mind being average. The price of greatness is discomfort.” A dear friend said that to me over breakfast one morning. I was most likely complaining about the burden of responsibility that accompanies my leadership position and he, in his very direct way, responded with that. He is right. If you want to be around and among excellence, there is a price to pay, a ticket for admission if you will, and it is pain.

When you read the title of this post, you may (or may not) have thought of the song by that name on the album “The Wall” by Pink Floyd. While there is a lot going on in that metaphoric novel posing as a concept album, I think there is truth in the chorus. Roger Waters sings:

When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone
I have become comfortably numb

So often as people get older, they get tired of striving. Excellence is difficult. Dreams take courage, blood, sweat, and tears. What they once saw is gone, and they can’t seem to get it back. Their dreams fade, and they slip into comfortable resolution. This is true for many people, but it cannot be true for leaders.

The responsibility of leadership demands greatness, not averageness. In an amazingly similar quote, Winston Churchill said, “The price of greatness is responsibility.” That works too. Responsibility is uncomfortable. If you are comfortable being responsible for people’s lives and livelihoods, for the environment they spend a third of their lives in, and for the impact your culture has on your team members and the community, then I don’t think you understand what you are doing.

Ironically, today is Labor Day. This holiday is meant to celebrate and remember the Labor Movement. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s workers began to organize to protect their interests against business owners who were not leaders. Rather than accept their responsibility, these men used their position, their power, and their people for their own gain. The lack of safety, reasonable working conditions and hours, equitable pay, and many other factors forced the workers to organize into bargaining collectives to protect themselves.

So, in a very real way, Labor Day symbolizes the result of the failure of leadership. When leadership becomes complacent and comfortable (or selfish, which can look similar), things break down in very predictable ways. People don’t mind there being a reasonable difference in the compensation of leadership if they are doing their jobs. We intuitively know that there is a price being paid by people who are leading. If they do it well, it will be very difficult and often painful. We are fine with them being paid to do this.

The breakdown occurs when leadership takes the compensation but doesn’t shoulder the burden. If we see our leaders getting comfortable and numb to our needs and concerns, we know we are no longer safe. We also know it is unjust for someone to be paid and not do the work they are being paid to do. If we are paying for greatness, we should get it.

What should you do if you are a leader who has become comfortably numb? Surround yourself with people and things that are great. Being in and around things of beauty and excellence elevates your game. The people and things you spend time with call to you. Are your surroundings calling you to greatness or mediocrity? Spend an afternoon in an art museum. See a play. Read a best-selling non-fiction book. Find a mentor who challenges you. You get the point.

If you are a leader who thinks you are hitting it out of the park, I have some news for you too. You have lots of room to improve. If you are feeling pretty good about yourself, you need to set your sights higher. What more can you do? Be honest, be hard on yourself, be brave. Comfort is for the average. That’s not you, and that’s not the Bison Way.