"Ultimately, leadership is the ability to thrive in the ambiguity of paradoxes and opposites.” - Brené Brown, Dare to Lead
I have a yoga teacher who likes to emphasize the apparent contradictions in poses. She’ll say things that sound impossible like, “Ground down and reach for the sky.” How can you be both grounded and reaching? Pulling up and pushing down at the same time sounds like nonsense, but when I listen to her cues and actually try to push with my legs and lift with my arms, I feel a huge difference - I create new space in the pose. It turns out breathing into these paradoxes is important in leadership, too.
In her book Dare to Lead, researcher Brené Brown quotes a CEO saying, "Leaders must learn the skills to hold these tensions and get adept at balancing on the ‘tightrope’ of life.” The ‘tightrope’ as she describes it includes embracing paradoxes like the following:
- Optimism and caution
- Vision and attention to detail
- Humility and resolve
- Speed and quality
- Building and scaling
- Simplicity and choice
- Big heart and tough decision making
Patrick Thean, CEO of Rhythm Systems, spends a lot of time coaching our team and our clients on the last bullet - he’s passionate about busting the myth that you have to choose between having good relationships and a positive culture and holding people accountable for delivering great results. As Ken Blanchard says in The Secret, “The way to maximize your results as a leader is to have high expectations for both results and relationships. If we can take care of our customers and create a motivating working environment for our people, profits and financial strength are the applause we get for a job well done.”
When you think about great teachers, coaches, mentors, and leaders in your life, they probably both challenged and supported you. Do this simple activity. Think about a great leader. What did they do to let you know they valued your relationship? Maybe things like asking you about your personal life and goals, listening with curiosity, or showing appreciation come to mind. Make a list.
What did they do to let you know they valued results? Maybe things like celebrating successes, addressing failures, communicating clear and high expectations, holding each other accountable, and working hard to remove obstacles to performance make this list.
Look at your lists… you’ve got a great idea now of the push and pull of great leadership. As a leader, you face tough decisions all the time - you know a lot and that’s why you are where you are, but you can’t just make decisions and proclamations. You have to remain open and curious and work with your team to find the answers. You can value your team members as people without being a pushover, and you can drive great results without being a jerk. And, if you are uncomfortable, chances are you are doing a good job.
Now, breathe, and embrace the ambiguity to be a great leader.
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