Mike Tomlin is comfortable in discomfort. In fact, he says he “resists comfort.” That’s one reason the head football coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers is such a great leader. And that’s something the rest of us can practice, regardless of what types of teams we lead.
Tomlin looked exceptionally comfortable during his recent appearance on “The Pivot Podcast,” a show that is streamed online and hosted by three former NFL players.
They gathered in the basement of Tomlin’s home, and he sat in a well-worn brown leather chair for what could best be described as a conversation among friends. But while Tomlin spoke at length about several subjects, the common theme for me was the importance of resisting comfort as a leader.
“Seeking comfort is a natural human condition, right?” Tomlin said. “We all want to be comfortable. I realize that if you want special outcomes, you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. I’ve just trained myself over the years to resist comfort.”
I am a fan of Tomlin’s in part because I grew up in Pittsburgh, but also because I appreciate great leadership no matter where I see it. And if any viewers wondered about Tomlin’s credibility on the topic of leadership, the two Lombardi Trophies on the table in the background served as a constant reminder of his success.
I don’t know if the trophies were replicas, but I do know they are awarded to Super Bowl champions. Tomlin has been part of two Super Bowl championship teams, one as an assistant coach (in 2003 with Tampa Bay) and one as a head coach (in 2009 with Pittsburgh). He’s never had a losing season as a head coach, and he’s won seven division titles, three AFC championships, and been to two Super Bowls in 15 years with the Steelers.
That success makes his resume look great and it’s allowed him to provide a comfortable lifestyle for his family, so why does he say he resists comfort? And why should we resist comfort as leaders?
To get the answer, I spent some time thinking about Tomlin’s responses in this interview and came up with five lessons about what it means to seek discomfort as a leader.
Embrace your opportunities: Seeking discomfort means taking on challenges even if they scare you.
Tomlin talked about the reservations he had when he took his first job as an NFL assistant. He was only 28 and he and his wife, Kiya, had a young child. He wasn’t much older than the players he would lead and he wasn’t sure how to be a good husband and father given the demands of his profession and the fact that he’d come from a broken home. But he embraced the opportunity and found mentors in men like Tony Dungy, the Buccaneers’ head coach at the time.
I’ve experience countless uncomfortable moments, including the time I passed out while taking a break from an all-night meeting where it seemed certain our company was headed toward bankruptcy. But the most uncomfortable moment of my professional career as a leader happened in 2008 when I was, technically speaking, unemployed.
That’s when I agreed to run into the firestorm that at the time was Prologis. I had left the company almost a year earlier, but the board asked me to return as CEO and to help bring it back to life during the Great Recession.
I knew it would be a huge challenge, and I was right. Part of me wanted to do the comfortable thing and say no. Actually, if it weren’t for my wife encouraging me to run into the fire and help solve the problem at Prologis, I don’t know if I would have done it. Perhaps I would have, but I definitely needed her support.
In the end, that adversity was the best thing for me.
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Take nothing for granted: Seeking discomfort means not allowing success to go to your head.
When you never have a losing season, it would be easy to take winning for granted and to stop doing the uncomfortable things that were so important to your success.
Tomlin reminds himself daily that each day is a new day and each season is a new season. Leaders, he knows, are responsible for giving the people they lead the best possible chance for success each day and in each new season. That can’t happen if you take success for granted.
“I’ve trained myself to hate (chasing comfort),” Tomlin said. “Because hating it keeps me upright. It keeps our program upright. That’s just our mode of operation that I’m comfortable with.”
Accept responsibility for your failings: Seeking discomfort means not making excuses when you don’t “win.”
Tomlin pointed at that, “Those who love us most in our business, they do the best job of helping us seek comfort.”
For example, after a home loss, he said, his mother often comes over and is quick to point out all the bad calls by the referees that went against the Steelers. He doesn’t want to hear it, not even from his mother. Blaming others, he said, is chasing comfort, and it keeps you from seeing the hard things you need to work on and improve.
This point reminded me of a story I shared in Transfluence about Ed Whitacre. When he was appointed CEO of General Motors in 2009, Whitacre began asking leaders about the reasons for the company’s financial troubles.
“I got an earful about how the collapse wasn’t their fault,” Whitacre wrote in American Turnaround. “It was due to some combination of bad luck, bad timing, and bad circumstances. In other words, bad management had nothing to do with it. ‘The economy got us,’ one executive told me. His comment stayed with me, like gum on the bottom of a shoe. I will always remember that quote.”
Lead everyone: Seeking discomfort means leading everyone, not just the easy ones.
It sounds obvious to say that a coach is responsible for coaching players, but Tomlin often sees coaches who shirk that basic responsibility. It’s the same in leadership. It’s easy to lead workers who are easy to lead, but uncomfortable to lead those who need us most.
“I don’t run away from coaching,” Tomlin said. “I run to coaching. It all is in line with not seeking comfort. Because when you are a coach talking about ‘somebody can’t learn,’ you are seeking comfort because your teaching is struggling.”
Not everyone will make it in the NFL, just like not everyone will make it in your organization. Like Tomlin, however, the leader’s role is to help them as much as you can for as long as you can.
“When you’re out of time,” he said, “we all know it. I just go hard all day until we’re at that point where we all know.”
Jump into the fire: Seeking discomfort means going first so that others will follow.
There are all sorts of times when leaders must put their pride at risk, open a window into their souls, put their reputations on the line, and do the really difficult things they want others to do so that others will embrace the challenge of doing it.
Tomlin put it this way: “Somebody’s got to be all in for everybody to be all in. When you are in a position of leadership, shouldn’t you own the initial component of that?”
There are times when an organization finds itself in smooth seas or safe harbors, and that’s great. For a period. But as Tomin points out, “You can’t do ordinary stuff and expect unique results.” To achieve something special, you must leave the harbor. You must work your way through the storms. You must chase some discomfort.