Leadership and the Paradox of Pain


“Lincoln’s story confounds those who see depression as a collection of symptoms to be eliminated. But it resonates with those who see suffering as a potential catalyst of emotional growth. “What man actually needs,” the psychiatrist Victor Frankl argued,”is not a tension-less state but rather the striving and struggling of a worthwhile goal.” Many believe that psychological health comes with the relief of distress. But Frankl proposed that all people– and particularly those under some emotional weight– need a purpose that will both draw on their talents and transcend their lives. For Lincoln, this sense of purpose was indeed the key that unlocked the gates of a mental prison. This doesn’t mean his suffering went away. In fact, as his life became richer and more satisfying, his melancholy exerted a stronger pull. He now responded to that pull by tying it to his newly defined sense of purpose. From a place of trouble, he looked for meaning. He looked at imperfection and sought redemption.” ― Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness

We can embrace our pain as a profound resource that enables us in our desire to lead, love, live with purpose and make a difference in the world through the people we serve.

Or we can be ashamed of our pain; hide ourselves behind a mask of certainty and in so doing disconnect from our own hearts and the hearts of others.

Leadership and pain are intertwined though we don’t often speak of it. Perhaps many of us, like Lincoln, have pursued a deeper purpose and meaning for our lives as a means of turning our pain into a form of redemption. For some of us, it is our pain that has provided the inner strength we needed to persevere and thrive in our role as leaders.

• Through our pain we can derive a deeper sense of empathy and compassion that gives us a deeper appreciation for and understanding of the way the people around us act or react to the challenges we face together.

• We bond with people in shared joy but the deepest connections are born out of shared suffering. When we are willing to let people know that we hurt too, that we feel pain, we make our hearts vulnerable and open the door for them to do the same.

• Our pain can teach us patience; the ability to stay in the tension and stay the course. It reminds us that we have overcome much and that, having survived, we can endure the situation in front of us and guide others through the difficult process of growth and change.

• As we embrace and learn to accept our pain we develop the ability to stay centered despite what the voices in our head our outside may be telling us. This ability to stay calm in the midst of the storm is of immense value when leading others through difficult times.

• Pain can be a point of focus. When we look at our pain and the inner battles we face on a daily basis we are inspired to rise above the darkness, to bring light into our lives and the lives of others. We can let it lift us to greater heights and inspire others to join us.

• Opening up to our pain and letting it serve us brings us out of the darkness and frees us to give the gift or our true selves to the world. We no longer have to spend our energy pretending everything is fine or trying to be a hero.

• Our pain keeps us humble. When we know and accept our struggles and weaknesses we are more willing to ask for and accept help. We learn that we can’t handle everything alone. We realize we are stronger, not weaker, when we let others in and work together to overcome our challenges.

• When we let our pain touch our hearts we allow our hearts to be broken. With our hearts no longer hardened we can be touched, moved, inspired, and shaped. We are ready to experience joy. We are ready to serve.

“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand.” – Henri Nouwen

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4 thoughts on “Leadership and the Paradox of Pain

  1. This definitely speaks to the heart and soul Scott. : )

    You have so many spot on points, I don’t even know where to begin. Suffice it to say that we cannot effectively lead others if we don’t understand ‘suffering’. And unless we are willing to face our own suffering, it will be difficult for us to face and handle the suffering others.

    That said, it’s less about pointing out a fatal flaw in saying…’Gee wiz. You haven’t suffered ENOUGH in your life compared to him/her/them, so you can’t lead!’ Not at all.

    It simply means 1) we may not be able to effectively lead ALL people or 2) we may not be able to lead well UNTIL we face our own suffering (part of the preparation process that is leading to specific purpose and greater service)

    And you are spot on. There is still a great deal of shame linked to pain and suffering that it is difficult for many of us to be able to share it. So we may tend to resort to minimizing because others can’t or don’t want to hear about it, we wind up minimizing and denying our own needs and begin to believe true needs aren’t legitimate needs at all. And eventually people begin to believe living with the way things are and being content with ‘what you have’ is ‘good enough’. So in some cases, our suffering, if no longer denied, can lead us to reach for something more. Although there are very few guarantees in life, facing our suffering can link us up with a new sense of courage that would enable us to DARE to reach for what we really need and want in our lives. To make those changes that are needed so we quit settling for lowest stakes and dare to raise the bar and expect more out of it.

    Most of all, I’ve learned that pain is an inevitable part of life. Just as the mud is necessary in order for the lotus to grow and bloom (analogy originally from Thich Naht Hanh), our suffering is the mud that can help us bloom and is also attached to our happiness. We cannot know or understand happiness and joy without also knowing and experiencing suffering. We cannot have one without the other. It is part of this life.

    Thank you so much for sharing another beautiful post my friend. : )


    • scott_elumn8 says:

      Excellent Samantha. Thanks for sharing here. Yes, the idea of the lotus is what I mean by giving others the gift of our true selves. When we express an honest representation of ourselves and open our hearts to others we invite community and the opportunity to create something beautiful and meaningful together. The struggles takes on a deeper meaning. Pain can be the “soil” as you said. Always appreciate your great insights.


  2. What a profound post, Scott as it inspired me to think of how important it is to first admit we are dealing with pain or that we possess a certain weakness. I agree that until we are able to be honest with ourselves, we are not able to ask for help.

    I love the idea of allowing our pain to “touch our hearts” which in turn breaks our hearts but also opens us up to joy. It seems easier sometimes to not allow the pain to personally touch us, but that it only hurting ourselves.

    Just amazing Scott!


    • scott_elumn8 says:

      Thanks much Terry. Great points. We learn from experience that a leader who is afraid to ask for help or recognize their own wounds and struggles will find it hard to do the difficult things required to truly transform a team or organization.


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