As a battalion Executive Officer I had a robust physical training program for my staff. It included functional fitness, sport, and combatives. I always liked combatives, but I never had any real training in grappling. So I would get out there and flounder around with my staff and do my best. During the boxing training I did fine, but during the ground training I was truly making it up as I went, and it showed. After getting twisted up by my supply chief one morning (which included an all-expenses-paid visit to the ER and a dashing neck brace) I vowed I wouldn’t “roll” with people bigger than me until I learned how to do it right.
I moved to another job soon after that, and, as luck would have it, they had a great combatives program. I took them up on their offer to train jiu jitsu a couple of times a week. The first thing I learned is to leave your ego at the edge of the mat. The second (which goes hand in hand with the first) is to “tap out” when someone has you in a submission, preferably before you get injured. During my first week in class I got paired up with a very large, well-trained Special Forces captain. “Great,” I thought. “This is going to be fun…”
I was prepared to do my best, though, and went after the big guy with untrained gusto. That was my first mistake. He, unsurprisingly, ended up on top, and proceeded to crush me. I mean that literally. With his weight on top of my chest and head, and his leg-sized arm trying to wrap around my neck, I applied rule #2 rather quickly, tapping him on the arm to indicate that I’d had enough. He released me with a look of disgust. “I didn’t even do anything to you yet!” he protested. I was willing to take that criticism rather than risk another embarrassing injury. “Well I couldn’t breathe,” I managed to mumble.
We finished the round with the big guy taking it easy on me, but the moment stuck with me. He was right. He hadn’t really done anything to me. I was not being choked. No limbs were being bent the wrong way. I was really (and I mean really) uncomfortable, but that is not the same thing as being injured. By tapping early I gave up any chance of escaping the hold or reversing my adverse position. Even if I couldn’t escape (which was likely) I gave up any chance of learning from trying to escape and failing.
As I continued to train, I took me a while to get used to being uncomfortable. It also took me a while to recognize the difference between being in an uncomfortable spot and being in a dangerous one. But I stuck with it, and now I only tap when a real injury is imminent. When stuck in a tight spot, I try to relax and find a way out. If I’m out of tricks, I try something new. As long as I am not in real danger I have the opportunity to succeed or learn from trying new things.
I think life is full of moments like that. There are times when you tap out early because you’re uncomfortable. Other times you don’t tap out because you either didn’t recognize the danger or your ego got in the way of tapping. It takes some experience in jiu jitsu to get that difference down on the mat. I suppose it takes the same thing with our decisions off the mat, too.
Many of our day to day decisions make us uncomfortable. If you happen to work in a large company, you probably sense how low the tolerance is for being uncomfortable. Many big organizations tend to be risk averse (especially government organizations). They tend to drop or cut funding to risky programs as soon as they start to feel uncomfortable. When the pressure increases, leaders start to centralize control instead of trusting subordinates to do their jobs, requiring ever-increasing levels of approval for what was once routine action. They start to strangle themselves with bureaucracy as a hedge against this uncomfortable feeling. Then they tap out.
How often does your organization give up on something because it makes people uncomfortable? Do your leaders understand the difference between discomfort and injury? Do you know the limits of discomfort your organization can bear before it taps out and leaves your initiative unfulfilled? When discomfort hits, do you grab control from your subordinates and deny them the chance to learn how to escape that hold, or to learn from trying something new, even if it fails? If the situation is merely uncomfortable and not injurious, why not let your subordinates try?
Every leader must know their own risk tolerance, and the tolerance of those decision-makers around them. Leaders must understand and recognize the difference between injury and discomfort, and must act prudently when faced with either. Leaders must know when to tap and when keep rolling.