You’ve been there––in the middle of a parenting moment and you hear words come out of your mouth that feel like you’ve hit a goldmine.

“Pain isn’t always bad. Embrace it, bud.”

Where did that come from? you wonder. I don’t know, but it was golden.

I recently struck it rich to realize (again) that pain is inevitable. It’s suffering that’s optional.

My son’s pain and suffering was a matter of sore muscles. He’s been binge watching American Ninja Warrior which led to more push-ups, obstacle courses, and directed focus toward grower larger and stronger muscles.

“Mom, check this out!”


“Hey mom, can I pick you up?”


And yesterday, “Mom, I did fifteen push-ups!”

Flex. Flex.

And today: pain.

And also today: suffering…for all of us as we listen to him whine and complain about his sore muscles.

I guided him through some stretches and then encouraged him with the golden nugget that felt the need to share itself at a deeper level.

Pain isn’t always bad. Embrace it.

There will be pain during this pandemic, and leaders that can’t hold the tension of both pain and joy will increase suffering.

Conscious leaders know this.

Conscious Leaders Do Hard Things with Good Intentions

We humans have a knack for polarizing issues. For example, the stance to “stay home!” or “open up!” creates dividing lines when both are clearly needed. Tension. The pain of trying to push and shove to get our way intensifies suffering. It paves the way for people to position themselves as right, to tell their opposition to shut up and sit down.

You’re wrong! I’m right! You lose, so I win!

This isn’t conscious leadership. It’s passionate, but it isn’t wise.

I’ve watched conscious leaders over the past few weeks get creative about how to serve their people. They’ve gotten honest about their abilities…and limitations. Many have risked rejection and blame in their decision-making, trying to do the next best thing with the best intentions.

Conscious leaders do hard things with good intentions. It’s what I love about working with them.

  • They stick their necks out
  • They take responsibility
  • They want to make a meaningful difference

My son is learning (reluctantly, like most of us) to embrace pain so he can grow into bigger obstacle courses, faster times, and a sense of accomplishment. He’s just too young to realize yet that pain is often part of the process.

During tough times, conscious leaders embrace pain, increase wisdom, and bring themselves and others to a deeper life experience, which to me, is the point.

  • Conscious leaders, you see gap between where we are and where we want to be, and you still stand in that gap anyway, holding the tension.
  • Instead of piling on suffering fueled by blame, hatred, and enticing conflict, you understand that compassion, peace, and bringing humanity back into leadership is the next best step.
  • You’re doing another push-up or two, past your comfort level, because you want to see benefits clearly, weigh all costs, and make the next best move for everyone in your influence.
  • The desire to understand, to grow, develop, and strengthen is in you.
  • You’re moving in new ways that stretch and strain muscles that haven’t been used much before.

And you know that sometimes hurts. 

It’s normal to experience painful emotions during times of uncertainty, and it’s precisely during these times we look around at other leaders for how to act…because most of us don’t know.

James Stockdale is a guy from whom to learn.

The Stockdale Paradox

Admiral James Stockdale, one of the highest-ranking officers in the Navy during the Vietnam war, was taken captive and held prisoner from 1967-1974.

During his seven years of captivity, among other things, he endured torture over twenty times.

(So seven years of great difficulty. We’ve been in our current situation for 1-4 months and already the pressure cooker is rattling and hissing.)

Stockdale found a way to balance realism with unwavering faith to turn his pain into purpose. He shared with interviewer, Jim Collins, that not only did he not lose faith that he would get out, but he planned to turn his time as a POW as the defining time of his life. And even more, he wanted to, in retrospect, not trade the experience.

He chose to endure his dire and horrible situation consciously.

The guys who had the most difficult time in these harsh conditions, according to Admiral Stockdale, held out hope and optimism for freedom for things to return to the way they were before, with time frames in mind.

Similar to the same story Viktor Frankl tells of his time in a German concentration camps, when prisoners put their hope in liberation in a specific date (Christmas, then Easter, then Thanksgiving, and so on), and when that date had come and gone, so did their hope…and resilience.

James Stockdale teaches us is to be able to face the brutal facts about the situation at hand––to be realistic––and to not lose an unwavering faith that there will be an end to the stressful situation.

This is the paradox.

It’s both/and.

There’s a military phrase that balances the hope and desire for a situation to be over that could perhaps paraphrase Stockdale’s experience that conscious leaders apply today: Embrace the suck.

It’s not over. It’s just begun. It’s real, and for so many it just sucks. Conscious leaders are able to hold the tension of pain and fear, and faith and hope, without increasing the suffering for themselves, or for those around them.

My colleague shared her new motto which now sits on my desk on a pink sticky-note: “I no longer have to have control. Control isn’t part of my repertoire.”

I’m still in the process of embracing this. It’s difficult.

Stockdale explained this paradox as the following: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

This is wisdom.

Wise Leaders Flex Self-Awareness Muscles

In the world of listening, observing, coaching, and studying leaders, I’ve met wise leaders with extraordinary integrity and honest intention who are trailblazing these times with care.

I write the names of these leaders on a notecard so I can remember them, write for them, support them, and learn better ways to coach them.

I can see the notecard right now. 

If I were to give a “solution” to the current situation we’re facing, I think one piece includes something I’ve learned from conscious leaders: It’s wise to embrace that life includes pain, and a conscious leader––a fellow human being––does not intentionally incite suffering with their role of influence.

There are opportunities to grow in awareness to know the impact your leadership is making. Take them. Self-awareness is the most important muscle to strengthen.

I hope one day my son will look at me when he recognizes I’m suffering and remind me of this nugget that wants to be known:

Pain isn’t always bad. Embrace it.

It wants to teach us and evolve us.


Reflect: Think back to the most pivotal moments in your life. Was pain involved? Joy? Both? To make this current experience a defining time in your life that in retrospect you would not want to trade, what would have to happen for (or in) you?


Rachel is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) through International Coaching Federation (ICF) for INspired Leadership at ESSDACK. She helps professionals get where they want to be, faster. Send her an email.

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