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Leadership Paradoxes #1

Confession time!


It has taken me all my nearly 58 years on this planet to gain a hint of understanding that I, like all human beings, am a walking, talking paradox. No wonder I spend so much time embroiled in inner conflict, struggling for a clear certainty, only to become frustrated when it cannot be found. This is the human condition!


A natural response to this reality is often some form of fundamentalism – religious, political, societal, or ideological. We strive to apply firm absolutes to a complex world where few absolute truths exist. It is the game we play to find our place in the world, to affirm our identity, to gain certainty, and to fit in with those who think like we do. On the surface, this pursuit makes sense. It’s scary out there, and more so as we look inward.


The truth, in my mind, lies not in searching for the unattainable black and white certainty we all want, but in realizing that we live in the world of ‘both-and’, and not ‘either-or’. The human mind, body, and spirit is not cut and dried. Reality is not tidy. Plus everything is in constant motion.


We all need to admit that we are neither one thing nor the other, we are both this and that – at least to some extent. We are positioned on many spectra and our places shift based on the unique needs of any circumstance and moment. The more we fight this truth about ourselves, the more rigid and uncompromising we become, with others and ourselves. This is problematic.


It is this duality that political strategists of all stripes seek to capitalize on, creating wedges and forcing us to choose one side or the other on issues that have multiple sides. The political discourse throughout the Western world has become a zero-sum game based on the ultimate untruth that we are all one thing or the other. But that is just not true and until we come to understand this, I fear the old adage may come true: united we stand, divided we fall. And by united, I do not mean uniform. I am pointing to a strong foundational unity that holds different views, beliefs, and circumstances; not a false and forced homogeneity.


Recognizing this is unsettling. It is frightening to realize that the truth of who we are is a tangled web of mixed and inconsistent emotions, beliefs, and actions. Neither this nor that, but both and. Resting attentively in this space is where truth and light come to us by way of grace and where real solutions to complex issues arise. Richard Rohr of the Center for Action and Contemplation would suggest sitting in this liminal space as long and as often as we can so that transformation can take place and new life emerge.


So, what does this have to do with leadership? Well, it begins with the fundamental recognition that people are both good and bad, strong and weak, brave and cowardly, wise and foolish, angel and devil, aggressive and passive, hardworking and lazy, effective and ineffective, good decision makers and not so good, committed and commitment-averse, disciplined and sloppy, kind and asshole-like, saint and sinner, moral and immoral, strong and weak, with faith and full of doubt… you get the picture.


This includes oneself. Self-awareness is the fundamental determinant of leadership effectiveness. It requires openness, humility, self-compassion, and an acceptance of the non-dual nature of the world within which we operate. Without self-awareness, how can we possibly be leaders of people, with all their complexities, inner conflicts, and inherent messiness? There are no simple or absolute solutions to the complicated issues of the human condition and the world within which we operate.


Disclaimer – this is not to say that we should over-complicate matters. The ability to simplify is a true gift of the effective leader. Each complex situation requires its own simple solution, or set of solutions, built upon hearty discussion, compromise, and third-way thinking.


Rote solutions driven by firmly held absolute beliefs may appear “simple” but are more likely to be ineffective, and potentially ruinous. Out-of-the-box, one-size-fits-all answers to the complex questions that arise when leading people, communities, organizations, and societies do not provide the answers that we need. In fact, continuing to force this approach to issue-solving can lead to unintended consequences.


Truly effective leaders understand that their approach within organizations, communities, and with the people they influence must not be rigidly one way. Rather, they approach situations with high levels of awareness, flexibility, and openness. We all want simple answers and clear operating instructions. Sadly, the world doesn’t work that way, and nor do we. An effective leadership approach requires that we sit in the mess for a while – to lengthen the time between stimulus and response.


In his book “The 8 Paradoxes of Great Leadership – Embracing the Conflicting Demands of Today’s Workplace”, author Tim Elmore brilliantly identifies and unpacks the qualities that make uncommon leaders effective – confidence and humility, vision and blind spots, visibility and invisibility, stubbornness and open-mindedness, personal and inherently collective, teachers and learners, modelling high standards along with gracious forgiveness and timeliness and timelessness.


We will dig into these and more over the coming posts.


Until next time!

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