Successful leaders know that they must get out of their comfort zone to succeed. Great leaders from history are those who have spent a large amount of their time outside their comfort zone.
Leaders who take risks and step into their learning zone are those that succeed. It’s only when you can give up what’s safe and familiar that you create opportunities and develop new capabilities. As you do, you expand your influence and gain the skills required to take on bigger and bigger challenges.
The Three Zones of Leadership
Leadership begins the moment you step outside your comfort zone.
There are three zones of leadership that impact our development as leaders.
- The Comfort Zone. The comfort zone is where we spend most of our time. As the name implies it is the place of comfort, it is safe, easy and predictable.
- The Learning Zone. The learning zone is the most important, this is the space between your comfort zone and your danger zone. This is where you push the boundaries of your existing skills and experience. This is where real learning and growth takes place.
- The Danger Zone. The danger zone is the place where you are stretched too far, over-stressed and unable to lead.
Let’s explore these three zones of leadership in more detail.
The Comfort Zone
The first zone leaders may find themselves in is the comfort zone. Wikipedia describes a comfort zone as:
“a psychological state in which a person feels familiar, at ease, in control, and experiences low anxiety. A person in this state uses a limited set of behaviors to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk.”
Your comfort zone is a psychological place where you feel safe and in control. You experience low-anxiety and you’re using a limited set of behaviours. This means you’re not growing or developing any new skills. Essentially you’re stuck on autopilot, you’re just going through the motions. Clearly this is not the place from which to lead.
“You’ve got to go out on a limb sometimes because that’s where the fruit is.” – Will Rogers
It’s in our comfort zone that we feel safe and secure. It’s the zone of routine, the place where we do those things we find safe, comfortable, easy and familiar. The comfort zone is a place where nothing particularly challenging happens.
The Science of the Comfort Zone
The science behind the comfort zone goes back to a psychology experimentconducted in 1908 by the psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson, who were researching the role anxiety plays in performance. The researchers found that too little anxiety results in poor performance. Whilst increasing anxiety causes an increase in performance. At the other extreme too much anxiety reduces performance. The findings from this research show that if we want to maximise our performance we need to be in a state of optimal anxiety.
The relationship between performance and anxiety is described by the Yerkes-Dodson law, as illustrated above. It shows that as arousal or anxiety increases, so does performance, up to an optimal point at the top of the curve. If anxiety is increased beyond this optimal point, performance begins to decline. Too much anxiety and we’re too stressed out, unproductive and performance declines.
The optimal level of anxiety then is found in the learning zone, just outside the comfort zone.
As illustrated above, any behaviour that produces a state of low anxietykeeps you in your comfort zone. As anxiety increases the comfort zone extends into the learning zone and performance improves. As we continue to increase anxiety we will eventually find ourselves in the danger zone, where anxiety is too high and performance declines.
Dangers that Lurk in Comfort Zones
“Life is inherently risky. There is only one big risk you should avoid at all costs, and that is the risk of doing nothing.” – Denis Waitley
You know you’re in a comfort zone when you feel no anxiety, no pressure and no stress. You’re doing things that are easy, comfortable and familiar. You’re in control and doing things that you know how to do, they don’t take much physical or emotional energy. It’s dangerous to stay in your comfort zone for long periods of time, it leads to mediocrity, stagnation and a lack of growth. Leaders who spend too much time in their comfort zone end up bored and unchallenged.
Comfort Zones Limit Your Goals and Dreams
Our dreams demand we grow to make them happen. Our dreams demand courage, the courage to take risks. No one has ever reached their dreams from within their comfort zone.
The comfort zone places a lid on your potential and limits the achievement of your goals and dreams. When you’re trapped in a comfort zone you fail to take the risks necessary to make your dreams a reality.
Comfort Zones Limit Your Potential
You will never discover your full potential unless you step outside your comfort zone. To grow you must put yourself in a place where more is demanded of you.
Comfort Zones Encourage Mediocrity
The biggest danger of living in a comfort zone is that after a while you begin to think that average is acceptable. You begin to fear the learning zone and anything outside your daily routine. You become psychologically stuck.
The Learning Zone
“We need a place of productive discomfort, if you’re too comfortable, you’re not productive. And if you’re too uncomfortable, you’re not productive. Like Goldilocks, we can’t be too hot or too cold.” – Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
The learning zone is where the magic happens. Your learning zone is the space just outside the comfort zone. It’s the place where leadership grows, success is built and goals are attained.
If you’ve ever pushed yourself to get to the next level in sport, fitness or by learning a new skill you know what it’s like to step outside your comfort zone. You know what it’s like in the learning zone.
It’s like going to gym for the first time. The exercises are difficult and you struggle. They take a lot of energy and concentration to complete. However, each week you grow stronger, the exercises become easier and they require less energy to complete. However, as the exercises become easier, you get less physical benefit. Soon you find yourself becoming used to your exercise routine, your heart rate no longer rises and you’re not sore in the mornings. When this happens you’re no longer growing stronger. You’re in a comfort zone. The solution? You need to change your exercise routine. You need to switch to a new set of exercises. The same principle holds for other areas in our lives.
“Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.” – Brian Tracy
Unless you spend time in your learning zone you’ll fail to grow. You can go to gym every day, doing the same exercises for months and months without and benefit. If what you’re doing is comfortable and easy, you’re not in the learning zone. And if you’re not in your learning zone you’re not growing.
Leadership Develops in Your Learning Zone
Leadership begins at the end of your comfort zone. Leadership starts in the learning zone. History has shown that life rewards the risk-takers, such as Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela, Henry Ford, Elon Musk, and many, many more. These are leaders who have dared to step out their comfort zone.
- Leaders who dared to change things.
- Leaders who dared to make a difference.
- Leaders who dared to make an impact on the world.
These are the leaders who succeed. Great leaders are those who made it a habit to step out their comfort zone and into the learning zone.
The Danger Zone
“Only those who risk going too far can possibly know how far one can go.” – T.S. Elliot
At the end of your learning zone you enter the danger zone. This is the place where you start to lose focus, you begin to panic and performance declines.
You need to ensure that you don’t push yourself too hard, too quickly and thereby land in the danger zone. Going back to our gym example. If you try to lift a weight that is too heavy, you’re likely to damage your tendons or tear a muscle. The lesson is to remain in learning zone and stay out of the danger zone.
Successful leaders keep themselves out of the danger zone by taking regular breaks. They place themselves in the learning zone for a period of time and then retreat back into their comfort zone for a short time to take a break. Once rested they prepare for the next push into the learning zone.
Decide to Spend More Time in Your Learning Zone
“One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.” – Abraham Maslow
Leadership is the ongoing process of choosing between safety and risk. You will therefore need to make a deliberate effort to spend time in the learning zone. Choose to spend more of your time in the learning zone.
- Which are these three zones of leadership do you find yourself in most often?
- Do you need to spend more time in your learning zone?
Try something new each week. If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you.