Three Zones of Leadership: Which One Are You In?

Your world is ever changing.

Like the tide, it’s in constant motion. Sometimes with a dramatic surge, other times with more subtle shifts in the sand.

This is true in the world of leadership as well. So it’s imperative that you stop every once in awhile and ask yourself if you are changing with the times.

One of the best ways to do that is to look at each of the following three zones and ask yourself which one you’re living in right now.

ZONE ONE: The Comfort Zone

The first zone that leaders find themselves in is the comfort zone. It’s the zone where we are safe and secure. This is a zone we think we want to live in (Who doesn’t want to be safe and secure?), but one that’s not in our best interests long term.

You know you’re in this zone when you’re bored. At first you don’t realize you’re bored, of course. It seeps into your soul unannounced, but it’s boredom just the same.

The spring is gone from your step. The exhilaration you used to have at the beginning of each day is just a faint memory. And the future … nothing really special awaits you.

Leadership starts in this zone, however.

It starts with a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo, a “holy discontent” as Bill Hybels puts it. Leadership in this zone realizes that what you crave–an endless feast of comfort food–will actually kill you, and what you need to do is get to work on that which will capture your imagination and transform your life.

ZONE TWO: The Stretch Zone

So you enter the Stretch Zone.

This zone has nothing to do with maintaining the status quo. This is the zone of bold vision and big goals. No, it’s not safe and secure, but bold vision and big goals never are. The Stretch Zone is “walking naked into the land of uncertainty,” according to leadership guru Robert Quinn.

And he’s right!

You know you’re in this zone when you’re a little excited and little scared, at the same time. You’re in this zone when you have big dreams for the future. Dreams you can almost taste and touch, but don’t know exactly how you’ll achieve. And that’s okay, you’ll figure it out.

And you know you’re in this zone when the people in your life–family and friends, colleagues and coworkers–are animated by that dream as well, and join you on this amazing adventure.

ZONE THREE: The Danger Zone

The third zone of leadership is called the danger zone because we enter it when we’ve gone past being stretched and start experiencing unhealthy stress. Strings on a violin don’t produce any music unless they’re stretched. But turn those strings too tight, and they’ll snap.

Most of us enter the Danger Zone unaware. The slide from stretching to stressing can be subtle and imperceptible, but dangerous just the same. This is the zone of leadership burnout.

Here are three signs that you’ve entered the Danger Zone:

  • Physical exhaustion
  • Emotional depletion
  • Relational distance

First, in the Danger Zone we experience an intense tiredness that doesn’t go away. Our sleep isn’t restful; and when we awake, we’re not refreshed. With this fatigue also comes an emotional weariness, a lingering sadness that has no real loss associated with it.

In this zone, as well, we feel cut off from family and friends. Mostly because we’ve run out of anything useful to give them, but also from the pace of living and leading that’s left them watching from the sidelines (or, sadly, moving on).

If you’re in this zone, the answer isn’t giving up on your vision and going back to the days when you were bored and pathetic. It’s just backing off a bit. Catching your breath personally, and taking some time to reconnect with the ones you love the most.

All good leaders learn where that fine line is of pushing hard enough to get somewhere significant and pushing too hard, eventually running out of gas. When you find that line, back off from it just a notch to assure that you’ll always be in the Stretch Zone of leadership and never in the Danger Zone.

Effective leadership is a marathon and not a sprint. In running a marathon pacing is all-important so you can finish well. How’s the pacing of your leadership? Which one of these zones are you in right now, the Comfort Zone, the Stretch Zone, or the Danger Zone, and what do you need to do about it?