No Pain, No Gain

This phrase is used in many forms. Based on my experience working with numerous leaders, what distinguishes great leaders is their readiness to be present to pain and suffering and to the ensuing learning and growth. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Hamdi Ulukaya (CEO, Chobani Yogurt), and Victor Frankl and Candy Lightner (founders of MADD – Mothers Against Drunk Driving) all had this in common. They were present to their suffering and challenges as it was occurring, and through it, they learned to look for opportunities for learning and growth and then reinvented themselves in ways that touched the world. We have created a “happy pill” culture. We have come to expect fulfillment and happiness as a controllable outcome and when things don’t go according to plan, we get disappointed, anxious, jealous, angry, revengeful, threatened, insecure, and sometimes clinically depressed. 

As a leader, it is critical to understand that the mindset of entitled fulfillment and happiness is an artificial construct that is prevalent in the western world. Many cultures, such as the one I originate from, believe in the duality of the universe. In these cultures, good and bad, happy and sad, fulfillment and disappointment etc., are the natural rhythm of the cosmos. It is through experiencing these polarities that we, as humans, expand our emotional and intellectual range and are able to connect with others through understanding and empathy. Leaders who have not gone through the range of human emotions or are now insulating themselves from their emotions often exhibit behaviors and decisions that are not well-informed and are out of touch with the human fabric that is at the heart of their organization’s effectiveness. 

Numbing the pain results in each of us not exercising the muscles of resilience and learning that millions of years of evolution has bestowed upon the human race. It is through adversity that children learn important lessons about life. So why is it that we artificially sedate ourselves and our children to natural emotions? Suffering and pain, if properly processed, accelerates the rate of growth and development. They trigger a powerful wake up call, a time for reflection, and the motivation to mindfully change our decisions and actions. After all, there is now scientific evidence that the information sent from the heart to the brain is about 60 times more encompassing than the information that is sent from the brain to the body. So to ignore and downplay the importance of the emotive brain in decision-making and behavioral modification is foolish. Please see the link below for more:

In order to reap the full benefits and growth, it is necessary that we persevere through the emotions that come with disappointment and sadness. It is not to ignore it, deny it, blame, rationalize, defend or force a different thought. Left unattended, the thoughts and feelings will fester and show up in multiple ways. For example, the way in which we get habitually triggered to make impulsive and reflexive decisions. If we learn to name these emotions, push through them by experiencing and observing them, and learn to have a conversation with them, we can turn an unfulfilling event into an important learning opportunity. 

One of the techniques that I use is to imagine that you are having a dinner party. You have invited your cynical and negative inner voices. Assign a name tag for each of your dinner guests. Names such as “impostor” for the voice that says you don’t deserve or are not qualified for this job, or “touchy feely” for when the cynic is instructing you to not honor your intuition or emotional intelligence when making decisions. The idea is to engage in a conversation with each voice, hear what they have to say, and then present the alternative perspectives and learning to the guest that is speaking. In doing so, it is imperative that you stay with the emotion that comes with each conversation and start to get familiar with the intensity, shape, and physical manifestations of it.  So for example, when engaging with the “impostor” it is important to notice the feelings and thoughts that come with being told you are an impostor. Once experienced, a retort may be “We have had this conversation often. Whenever I reach for higher ground you tell me I am an impostor. But when I look around the table I feel I am just as qualified as others since we all have strengths and areas for development. In addition, so far, my performance has shown that I am up to the task. Thank you for the advice. I know I have to learn a few new things but I am not an impostor I am deserving of this job…” Notice not only the words you are using but the feelings that are present when you talk back to the inner voice. Are you feeling positive energy? Are you feeling less trapped? Are you feeling frustrated by having to have the same talk with your inner voice? Are you not believing what you are saying? The answer to these questions are clues for the work ahead.

With repetition you will gain self-mastery. Rather than these voices controlling your emotions, thoughts, and actions, you will see them coming, know what they feel like and how to converse with them to use the voice productively to learn, and no longer be held hostage by them.

In my life I have gone through much adversity. My father was told by the Shah of Iran to take a job in the U.S at the Iranian Embassy because the Shah was threatened by his popularity. As a result, I was put in a middle school in the U.S without speaking a word of English. This was a time when English as a second language programs were rare. It was sink or swim and an age when children can be extremely cruel. My country was taken away from me through a revolution and I had to make a life in a foreign country, in Wall Street, and in organizations that espoused very different values and beliefs than those that I was taught. I have experienced two painful divorces. The last one resulted in the company I built over 16 years having to be sold and dissolved. And I am currently having to get emotionally ready for my ex-wife’s move to Virginia which will mean that my 8 year old son, whom I adore, will live over 300 miles away from me. All of these experiences were/are devastating. However, I would not be the person that I am without them. Each has accelerated my personal growth in its own way. I have experienced a wider range of human emotion and am able to better connect with others, improved my level of listening and presence, and I am more curious and I have slowed down my pace to reflect and take input before making decisions and acting. In addition, with each adversity, new doors and opportunities have surfaced when I have been present to them. Let me be clear, I am not discounting the pain and suffering that I have gone through. However, rather than surrendering to resentment, I have tried to see these events as natural markers and vistas in the lifelong journey towards self-awareness and learning.

I have discovered that regretting the past is futile. When I made the decisions that I made, I was a different person and those decisions served me at that time. I have also learned that comparing myself with others is not very helpful. Each of us occupies a unique body and is wired differently. The journey is intended for us to self-actualize in ways that are natural and accessible to us.

You are all fellow travelers in this journey and I welcome the chance to connect with you and share and explore the many twists and turns.

Questions for Online Conversation

  1. To what extent have you learned from your past challenges?
  2. What has helped and what has been blocking your learning?
  3. What is your way of addressing adversity?

About Kaveh Naficy
Kaveh is the leader of Heidrick and Struggles executive coaching practice in North America. Kaveh focuses on working with leaders placed to make transformational and creative changes in their organizations. Kaveh has a proven record of success in harnessing the strengths of these leaders to achieve accelerated business solutions. He is able to create significant insights through reflective thinking, presence, and disciplined follow-through. Executives who have worked with Kaveh say that his strengths are his deep insights into the realities of the current and future business world, accelerated scanning of the environment and competition; creative out of the box thinking, and leveraging the collective intelligence of their teams and creating the organizational culture to support and foster the appropriate organizational design and strategies. They also point their deep trust and personal connectivity with Kaveh, his coaching approach, and style.

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