Leaders: The Secret of the Two Types of Pain

Written by Dr. John Townsend

February 1, 2016

Pain, or discomfort, is a normal and expected part of leadership. Pain is all around you as you lead, every day, in some form. For example, it’s painful and uncomfortable to deal with:

• Revenue challenges
• Sales issues
• Execution problems
• Team dysfunctions
• The demand of your people
• Motivation challenges in your people

The list can go on. But the best leaders are those who have discovered the secret of understanding, and dealing with, the two types of pain. Once this becomes part of your skill set, things go much better and more productively. I have contextualized these ideas for leaders from my new book The Entitlement Cure. Here they are:

Symptom Pain: This is the sort of discomfort that alerts the leader to a challenge that must be addressed. It is a symptom with a cause underneath it, just the way a fever is the symptom of an infection, and the way a lit-up oil gauge is the symptom of an engine problem. The function of symptom pain is simply to let you know it’s time to dig into what’s really going on. The items at the list above are symptoms. They bother us and take our attention, but they are driven by something deeper. And that deeper issue requires understanding the second kind of pain:

Success Pain: Success pain is the discomfort that comes from doing what is necessary to root out the cause of the symptom. It is uncomfortable to take your antibiotics, to take time off from work when they need you at the office, and to modify your food intake and activities. But that resolves the fever. And it is uncomfortable to take your car to the mechanic, get a rental for the day, and pay for the cost of repairing the engine. But that is the only way the light will go off, and for you to know that your car is healthy.

Marginally successful leaders are those who focus only on the symptom, and don’t look below it. For example, a sales manager whose team is not landing the sales might say, “You guys need to make more phone calls. Here’s your new goal: make 20% more phone calls. Go for it!” There are a few times where this might be the solution, but in my experience with organizations, that’s the right thing to do about 5% of the time. Great leaders know there can be a number of things that are driving the poor sales, and they will delve into these, for example:

• Lack of role clarity
• Products that have little market value
• Lack of goal clarity
• Lack of resourcing
• Focusing on the wrong drivers
• A culture of entitlement
• A culture of fear

It is painful to do the work to figure out what the real cause it. It is also uncomfortable, and takes significant energy, to then solve the real problem. But that sort of investment will pay off in time.

So the secret is this: use the symptom pain to ask “why” and find the success pain. That is how you can solve challenges once and for all, and move on in your organization. Ultimately, the resolution of the symptom will mean that your company is healthier and better. Best to your leadership.

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