May 22, 2003
On Managing (Library Administration and Management)
By John Lubans
Number 4
“Leaving the Comfort Zone”

“Being on the tightrope is living; everything else is waiting.” 
- Karl Wallenda, aerialist.

- everything else is waiting – Those existential words remind me that managers, try as we might, tend to avoid the metaphoric tightropes in our work and, instead, linger in our comfort zone –  a waiting room crowded with routine decisions and predictable meetings. When intruded upon and surprised by the unexpected, we too often articulate reasons not to change, not to quit doing business as usual.

I recall when two college students appealed to me one morning to  overrule a reserve book room policy.  In my assistant director role, I politely listened to their gripe. What I gathered from their assertions was that the policy was set up for the benefit of staff, it was punitive to users and it probably needed to be re-thought. Yet, I found myself mouthing platitudes in rationalizing the policy. Why did I not do what was right – intervene, talk with the staff to get their take, make a decision and then get back to the students? Why did I not move out of my comfort zone? For one thing, I knew the reserve room staff was difficult – to them, users were the enemy, spoiled children eager to exploit any advantage. I suppose it came down to avoiding conflict - my not wanting to leave more enjoyable work to fight it out with an entrenched staff. In conclusion, the two students went away unhappy and I felt a most complete bureaucrat. My failure rankles still.

Managers of libraries, just like managers in any long-running business, can be seduced into remaining in the comfort zone, resisting the tug of doing what is right. We may never step out of it until we are embarrassed or forced into change – when the cost of not doing something becomes greater than the cost of doing what is right.

Wallenda’s “being on the tightrope” is what I call the learning zone. An organization’s well being and growth develops in the learning zone - the organization stagnates in the comfort zone

There’s risk in the learning zone, risk of success and risk of failure. It is that risk that opens us up to learning by focusing our attention and elevating our learning faculties. Please understand that the risk in the learning zone is within our control – we are almost always up to the challenge, we have the ability to solve the problem given we care enough to make the extra effort. The risk level in my learning zone is akin to a balance beam I use on an outdoor exercise trail. That beam is a foot or less above the ground but enough to force me to pay attention to what I am doing to stay upright. This is risk, but not the risk in the panic-inducing image of Mr. Wallenda wobbling on a tightrope 1000 feet above the roar and rush of Georgia’s Tallulah Falls Gorge. That’s the panic zone for all but the Flying Wallendas.

In libraries, like in most of life, learning zones are never far away; they lie only a step or two outside the comfort zone.

By regularly taking on small challenges and gaining confidence in our ability to meet them, we heighten our risk tolerance. The more time spent in the learning zone, the greater your capacity for challenge. As I gain confidence and certainty in not falling off a foot high balance beam I become ready to walk the beam backwards. I use what I’ve learned from walking forward, like keeping my eye on a distant tree for balance – a metaphor for the importance of having a goal, of knowing where I am headed, of having something that anchors me as I move backward.

Or, losing my balance, I stop and take time literally to center myself by putting weight on my back foot and feel the play of my leg muscles and the solid beam through my shoe and, to savor the sunshine streaming through the green leaves. Then, with renewed confidence, I take my next step back.  Once I’ve mastered walking the beam backwards, I’ll try it with my eyes closed, shutting out all distraction, focusing on my inner goal.

Eventually, you may find yourself in a risk situation comparable to walking across Tallulah Falls Gorge, achieving the previously unattainable. The learning zone is elastic. Karl Wallenda raised the risk level on his 1200 foot walk across the abyss – at the midpoint, he did two headstands – literal  exclamation points to his achievement.

I’ve had more than a few tightrope experiences in the workplace.  

And, I have written about others who thrive in the learning zone. Besides Simone Young, Saul Zabar and a women’s basketball team, there is the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. At their 30th anniversary concert this May at Carnegie Hall they were not content to rest on their laurels in a musical comfort zone. Instead of opening with a familiar Mozart piece or something lyrically flowing and audience pleasing  by Richard Strauss, they premiered a new composition by a living composer, Gunther Schuller. The learning zone can be an intense place – the faces of the orchestra showed their concentration, their listening to each other, their supporting each other as they worked their way through new juxtapositions and sounds. It was like a race well run - the players were visibly relieved once it was over and joyful in the collective result.

Equally relevant is my unwritten story about a young colleague in the electronic publishing field who is on her own tightrope. She’s heading up a new project, taking on something never before done.

Her boss told me her doing so is a “stretch”, but believes the young editor is up to it. The boss is betting on her to succeed where more experienced editors have failed. Her reasoning is paradoxical. Because academic book publishing is so paper bound, few professionals in the field are able to imagine a different way of doing things. For her boss, my young colleague’s weakness (lack of experience in paper publishing) is a strength – by her not being bogged down in the conservative publishing tradition, she just might come up with radically different ways of doing the work.

As important it is to be given the opportunity and to be supported, more important is the young editor’s willingness to step out of her comfort zone, to undertake a major challenge. Her boss’ support is invaluable – without it she cannot succeed - but it is going to be her inner confidence, her sense of balance, her personal purpose and vision (a vision shared with the boss) that is going to make the project happen, that will keep her moving forward on this tightrope. Does this editor know what she is risking? Very likely she does. Does doubt about the outcome get in the way? Of course, but she will likely prevail. The fear of failure alone will not stop her; it’ll take more than a nay-sayer’s litany of “it can’t be done, it can’t be done, it can’t be done” to stop her.

When we challenge ourselves to reach for the uncertain and ambiguous, to lift oneself and our organization to new heights we are leaders of self. Being in the learning zone is about leading oneself.

I encourage you to move out of your personal comfort zones. Here are a few suggestions to launch you:

  1. Give a fractious subordinate your well considered, supportive and honest feedback on how they are doing.
  2. Open a discussion with the person with whom you have the most difficulty working. Explore with them the issues and seek mutual ways to improve your relationship.
  3. When reviewing a process, ask “Why do we do this?” Don’t let up until you really understand why. Find the root cause.
  4. Take a “Ropes” course for managers. Learn about your level of risk tolerance, personal strength, and ability to help others and to ask for help.

See you in the learning zone.


Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the Flying Wallendas, made the 1200 foot long Tallulah Falls Gorge walk in July, 1970 in front of 35,000 spectators. His death came in San Juan, Puerto Rico in March, 1978 at age 73 after a fall of 123 feet. The cause of the fall was a loose guy wire connection, not a slip of the foot.

Editor: Do you want footnotes for the briefly referred to studies on Saul Zabar, Orpheus, Simone Young and the B-ball team?

Author’s note: John Lubans is a librarian who conducts leadership workshops. His most recent is a two-day retreat, “The Leader You Are; The Leader You Want To Be”. E-mail him at