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Leadership Paradoxes #2


In my previous post, I introduced the idea that human beings aren’t just one thing or the other. Similarly, effective leaders must have the ability to assess the ever-changing realities of any situation, adjusting leadership style to respond with intention.


Applying rigid leadership styles and tools simply doesn’t cut it anymore, if it ever really did. Leading a modern organization requires a ‘both-and’ approach and solving issues using third-way thinking; otherwise, we are bound to fail – or at least get stuck in old ineffective paradigms.


The paradox of leadership is that effective leaders must learn to embrace qualities that aren’t inherent to our natures when faced with unexpected volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity – VUCA, according to Richard Batts. These four types of situations are so prevalent in our current environment that as leaders we have no choice but to respond in a new way.


Today’s leaders need more than just intelligence, education, charisma, and a track record of success. Not only are the circumstances within which we operate complicated and conflicting, but our people are more knowledgeable, emotionally intelligent, and have higher expectations of both their work lives and those who influence them. Let’s unpack some of the paradoxes and see where we land.


Paradox #1: Confidence and Humility

When asked to identify traits of successful leaders, the stereotype of the strong Type-A personality is high on most people’s lists. We see this play out in business, politics, and the sports world. For whatever reason, we strive for leaders who appear strong, outwardly confident in their own abilities, decisive and fast-working, perfectionistic and hard-charging. Not bad traits, but also not the whole enchilada.


Perhaps this kind of leader gives us the security that we crave, knowing that in their hands, everything will be okay. We place trust in leaders who seem to have the answers to our problems, who are strong and unwavering in their approach. I’m no psychologist, but my personal experience with these types of leaders is that behind the façade, they are just as uncertain and frightened as the rest of us.


One of my takeaways from “Good to Great” by Jim Collins is that the truth of the matter is contrary to this belief in Type-A leaders. In his exhausting study of what makes some corporations perform at a higher level than their peers (share value), Collins found compelling evidence that these companies had humble leaders – those happy to lead from behind, take full responsibility for the mistakes of others, and give credit for successes to others. (This is my own very unscientific summation. Please read the book for yourself.)


Effective leaders must be able to instill confidence and act confidently, but with a large dose of humility, making them truly human to the people they lead. Reality changes so quickly that leaders cannot afford to be arrogant and must remain open to input and ideas of others and be willing to shift their understanding of what solutions will render results – what worked yesterday will not necessarily work today. After all, this is the way we learn.


In today’s labour market dynamic, employees have the upper hand (whether you think that is a good thing or not). People want leaders who inspire confidence, yes; but they also want leaders who seek input and feedback. Leaders willing to admit they don’t have all the answers, to learn from others, to admit mistakes, are compassionate with self and others, and most importantly, interested in the greater good of the organization.


It is this humility that makes the hero believable accorinding to Tim Elmore. Today’s employees do not suffer fools.


Let’s finish this one with a quote attributed to Mark Twain:

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble.

It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”


Paradox #2: Vision and Blind Spots

This paradox mostly shows itself when there is something new on the horizon, such as a new project, an acquisition – especially if it holds higher risk.


Having a clearly defined, shared, and lived Vision is vital for leaders and teams to move together in the same direction. Blind spots are a two-sided coin. Admitting blind spots and being humble enough to have them pointed out is a strength in leadership. The other side of the coin is that blind spots can be remarkably effective in moving the needle. Without blind spots leaders would not take the risks needed to bring forth change and make things happen.


I admit I too frequently poke holes in grand ideas. My intentions are often good – to point out realities and risks. It is not to squash the entrepreneurial mind, but to ensure that the whole picture is considered before leaping. This is probably why I’ve never been an entrepreneur but have enjoyed working with entrepreneurs as a number two. I’m okay with that.


Blind spots are what enable entrepreneurs to get out of the ready, aim, aim, aim, aim, aim cycle. Sometimes it’s important to move toward a ready, fire, aim process – make the decision, take the leap, and count on your people to make it work. Sure, there will be some failures along the way, but that is how transformation happens.


Paradox #3: Visibility and Invisibility


There are times when a leader needs to be highly visible and very involved, sharing the vision and the plan and getting the project off the ground. This is when it gets tricky. The effective leader is there to guide, direct, demonstrate possibility, and inspire others in their work. The hard part, and where many leaders fall short, is in knowing when to pull back and leave it to the team.


This is easier said than done. Each of us wants things to go as planned and to experience the sense of security and accomplishment that doing it ourselves provides. After all, it is the leader’s own vision that has now moved into the execution phase. This is the leader’s baby, and they know it better than anyone.


But there comes a time when leaders must back off and let the experts take over – to succeed, fail, fine-tune, and re-work as needed. Members of the team must be free to do what they do best and realize their own potential. At this point, leaders must elevate themselves back to their role of working on the business and influencing the big picture.


Sure, there are times when we need to re-insert ourselves, to attend important meetings to reinforce the visions and provide feedback on implementation. Great leaders act with intention – knowing when to be visible and when to get out of the way - often out of their own way.


Cultures that are dominated by micro-management are those where initiative is stifled, and the spirit of the organization and its people are squashed. Micro-management simply doesn’t get us where we want to be in the end and the negative impacts ripple throughout the organization.


In my next post, we’ll dig into a few more of Tim Elmore’s “The 8 Paradoxes of Great Leadership”.


Until next time!

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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 embr