Friday, May 27, 2016

the uncomfortable paradox of leadership

Here are two things I know to be true about leadership:
  1. It's all about the leader
  2. It not at all about the leader
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in one's mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.  I suppose the same could be true for first-rate leadership...and yet it is this paradox that remains one of the more difficult aspects of leadership - and not having this ability can often lead to one's downfall.  Let me try to explain a bit more about this uncomfortable paradox.

All of our lives we are told to put the other person first, to love one's neighbor as ourself, that children should be seen and not heard, etc, etc, etc.  This is especially true for those who grew up in religious homes, where not only do others come first, but God is the most important figure in our lives.  I have some friends who use the acronym JOY - Jesus, Others, You.  Being able to say "It's all about me" runs anathema to many, many people...and yet, when put into a leadership position, it IS all about you.  When leaders deny this fact, they give up part of their ability to lead, often deferring decisions or not stepping up when called upon to do so.  The ability to take responsibility, to put oneself forward, to believe that their decision making process is good and right...unless one has the confidence and courage to truly believe that it is all about them, it becomes very hard to lead.

At the same time, leadership has very little (if anything at all) to do with the leader herself.  While she might believe that "it's good to be Queen," the truth is that very little gets done by the leader.  Most of the work...most of the decision making...most of the execution gets done by others.  We can sit in our offices and believe that without us the place might fall apart. The truth is that 1) without us the place just might thrive or 2) even with us, the place might fall apart.  For one who strives to be in a leadership position, or for one whose identity is wrapped up in their leadership position, this can be very disconcerting news.

So what are leaders to do?  How can they manage this uncomfortable paradox?  A few suggestions:

  • accept the fact that this paradox exists and work to manage it - just being aware of this uncomfortableness can help
  • enjoy the fact that sometimes it is all about you - throw a party for yourself, give yourself a trophy, and pat yourself on the back...just don't do it too often
  • enjoy the fact that sometimes is is not about you at all - let the other person worry about it, watch them squirm at a meeting, and give yourself time off...maybe you need to do this more often than you have in the past
  • remember that this is not a balancing act (sometimes this/sometimes that).  This IS the reality of leadership and will always be true - both of them!  at the same time!
  • be willing to ask for forgiveness when it becomes too much about you or too much about others...and be willing to forgive yourself at those times as well
Leadership is a complicated issue (as if I have to remind anyone about that).  Here's the good news about this paradox: you will fall off one end or the other from time to time.  If you didn't you might not really be leading.  So be uncomfortable, because the other paradox of leadership is that you should feel most comfortable about your leadership when you are the most uncomfortable.  Lead on!

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