A Fighting Mentality? Lean into the Pain

Could leaning into pain be a cornerstone of ethical leadership?


Rorke Denver, former Lieutenant Commander and Navy Seal, shares an ethical leadership lesson that has changed how he approaches the challenges of being a leader. Rorke explains that we all face a variety of challenges -- technical, functional or interpersonal, and most of us have been conditioned to avoid the pain of difficulties. But based on his experiences, Rorke believes that avoiding the pain is a mistake when it comes to leading ethically and with bravery.

By sharing an example from his personal life, Rorke shows that avoiding pain often delays the inevitable. As Rorke explains, what makes an ethical leader -- among many characteristics -- is to make a conscious decision to lean into the pain.

Do you have a fighting mentality? To you, does leading ethically mean facing challenges head on? Share your comments below! You can also watch related Leadercast videos on ethical leadership to learn more about values-based leadership.

I think one of the things we've done as a society that is an error is that we've almost set everything up in our lives to avoid pain. Right? To avoid pain. This is, pain is one of fear's agents. We're talking about the counterpoint to bravery. Pain is one of fear's agents. And I think it's a mistake. I think even the lessons of our basic bodies can teach us something and that it's designed to absorb pain and actually respond to it. If I want to make this muscle bigger, all I've got to do is pick stuff up repetitively and it's heavy. I'll damage that muscle and then all these cells will attack it. They'll fix it, it gets stronger and better. I do that again and multiple times, I build myself into a stronger being.

There's a lesson there that I think physical pain has the ability to kind of transform not only the physical, but I do think it connects to the spiritual. I think this pain avoidance is a mistake. I'm going to share the best pain story I have ever witnessed, and I'm going to get emotional doing it. My bride is with us today. You want to meet the class in the Denver act, you go ahead and introduce yourself to my bride today. She's cringing right now, not because I'm about to tell the story but she knows I cannot talk about that which I care about most without getting emotional, but I think it's still worth it. I can't ask you to face fears if I am not facing my own.

Here we go. When my bride got pregnant with our first, the day it happens she tells me, "It's very important to me that I do this naturally, that I do this without medicine, without a doctor. I want to do this. I want to do this right. Everything I'm reading says it's great for our kiddos. I want that to be our experience." I knew she was serious. When she says something, it's as good as notarized. I remember being a little nervous about it but sure enough on the day of battle she goes into labor in the morning. Unbeknown to us at the time, our firstborn is what's called sunny side up and never turned. It stayed that way the whole day.

When contractions started, she experienced that wonderful pain, and then when they stopped and abated, she went into what they call back labor which as best I could tell was worse than the contractions. It was like nothing I've ever seen. This day was nothing I've ever seen and I feel like I've got a genuine premium on understanding pain. She struggled through this for about 18 hours.

We get to this birthing center. We had a midwife by the name of June. She delivered I think somewhere north of 3,000 babies. An absolute pro. I remember at about 19 hours and 15 minutes June walks into this room where I'm just there trying to help in any way I can which was virtually useless. But I remember I was sitting there, June comes in, she looks at my bride and says, "You have done more to make this work than almost anyone I've ever seen and I've been doing this for a long time. We have a protocol, and at 20 hours you're not allowed to stay here. We have to move you on. That means you're getting in an ambulance and you're going to a hospital." We knew what that meant. Instantly we knew that was going to be emergency c-section. It'd be the absolute opposite of what we hoped to experience. We knew it would be a blessing if we saw it through, but it was just a tough moment.

I will never forget my bride's face. It was otherworldly. It was disappointment, it was fear, it was . . . she was almost looking at me like she'd failed, which was horrible. I remember no sooner does she have this look at her face, she turns to the midwife and says, "Is there anything more I can do? Is there anything left undone that can help us get to where I want to be?" Unbelievable. Unbelievable. June smiles and says, "I wouldn't suggest this for that many people, but at this point you need to change something. Whatever body position you've been in to kind of avoid pain or to kind of reduce your pain, which of course you're going to do on an elemental level, you need to go the other direction. You need to lean into the pain. Find the most uncomfortable position you can get into and let's see what happens."

I don't think a second passes. My bride takes a deep breath. She rolls over. She turns her position. She moves her legs in a different position. If she was at a 10 of 10 pain-wise at that point for 18 hours, she shot immediately to a 19 out of 10. I am positive. The sounds and the experience at that point were otherworldly. Thirty seconds after she leans into pain, her water breaks. About 20 minutes after that, we are in absolute, full-blown, a kid's coming, and 35 minutes later we introduce our first child into the world.

I married way up. I am a charge of two things in my household; security and maintenance. She's in charge of everything else. But there's a lesson in this. There's a lesson in this that I think is so important when it comes to bravery and this idea of being a brave leader, and it's the idea to not avoid pain. Lean into the pain. Recognize that pain is a growth opportunity. Lean into it and that is where bravery lies. You're going to find it there.

Rorke Denver

Commander Rorke T. Denver, founder of Ever Onward, has run every phase of training for the U.S. Navy SEALs and led special-forces missions in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and other international hot spots. He starred in the ...

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