Paradoxical Leadership in a Complex Age
Leading in the twenty-first century is, indeed, more complex than it was in past centuries. Leadership is seldom easy, but today it affords us the challenge of collaborating with a more educated, more entitled, more savvy population that has greater expectations of satisfaction and rewards than in past generations. Uncommon leaders stand out because they are able to juggle seemingly contradictory traits to lead such people. They balance paradoxes that make them worth following. Their paradoxical qualities are conspicuous as they require not just intelligence but the differentiating qualities of emotional intelligence, social intelligence, and moral intelligence. In the words of Adam Saenz, they are street smart, book smart, and heart smart.
Uncommon leaders differentiate themselves because they rise to challenges. They display the ability to read and then respond to the nuances in a team member’s language, allowing everyone to feel they belong and contribute. They live in the tension of two opposing views, weighing all possibilities, even when ruthless people demand they take sides or choose an extreme point of view. Uncommon leaders recognize most of life is lived with such tensions. Sadly, most people do not manage their emotions well enough to join them. It’s why they need uncommon leaders. People are hungry for them.
Now that information is a commodity, available anywhere upon a search, informed leaders are no longer rare. What is rare is a leader who is socially and emotionally intelligent and who practices the paradoxes we’ll discuss in this book with their teams. They bring a stunning form of insight into complex situations and find ways to achieve their goals. They’re what past generations called “wise leaders.” These leaders are essential today because people are drowning in information and yet starving for wisdom.
Paradox One: Uncommon Leaders Balance Both Confidence and Humility
Herein lies the big idea: uncommon leaders possess inspiring confidence yet express it with palpable humility.
In today’s complex world, people look for anyone with a clear sense of confidence. Teams seldom move forward without seeing it in their leader. At the same time, people demand that a leader’s confidence doesn’t blind them to their own humanity. Leaders believe in themselves, but they don’t believe they can do it alone. Dacher Keltner said, “The seductions of power induce us to lose the very skills that enabled us to gain power in the first place.”
Confidence plus humility furnishes the energy of certainty and the flexibility of teachability to create synergy in partnerships. Bob Iger found this to be true in his interactions with George Lucas (when he purchased Lucasfilm), with Ike Perlmutter (when he bought Marvel), and with Steve Jobs (when he bought Pixar). Bob was a learner but brought to the table enough confidence—even audacity—to make the pitch to these CEOs. Only confidence, even self-confidence, can catapult a leader from average to extraordinary.
When in decision-making meetings, argue as if you believe you’re right, but listen as if you believe you’re wrong.
When in conflict with team members, be willing to lose a few battles to win the war. Predetermine what “hills you’re willing to die on.”
Remain teachable in new contexts, even from those under your care. Don’t let your confidence prevent you from improving your own ideas.
Refuse to cross the line between confidence and cockiness. Confidence believes you can do the job. Cockiness believes it will be easy.
Don’t confuse confidence with certainty. You’ll frequently have to take action without certainty as a leader. Even when uncertain, remain clear and transparent.
Don’t let humility become sheepishness. When we’re sheepish, we are self-conscious, preoccupied with our own weaknesses. This keeps us from progress.
As you meet with teammates, you must know what you don’t know and trust in what you do. Be clear on the difference between the two.
If you possess a strong ego on the job, take time to list your shortcomings and mistakes. Remind yourself of your humanity by reviewing these regularly.
When tempted to boast about what you achieved, instantly turn your focus to a team member and brag about them. Let someone else do your boasting.
Paradox Two: Uncommon Leaders Leverage Both Their Vision and Their Blind Spots
Vision gives leaders (and teams) a direction, but blind spots are often the very motivator that enables them to approach an idea in an unconventional way—and believe they can pull it off. Most new ventures require a leader to possess a clear target they want to hit. At the same time, their inability to see all the obstacles or challenges ahead of time helps them to maintain their energy as they try to hit their target. In short, leaders usually have to see something and fail to see something to reach their goal.
“Marry” the problem you’re trying to solve but “date” your methods. In short, to stay open to the best vision, stick to the need you wish to meet.
Invite outside points of view into the conversation. The best ones will likely come from a combination of insiders (which you already know) and outsiders.
Record what you learn from poor decisions. Failure is only a bad thing when we fail to learn from our mistakes.
Listen and learn from wise, experienced leaders anywhere you can. A lifelong learning posture is our only hope to thrive in the future.
Consistently mediate between self-doubt and self-confidence. Question yourself each time you draw a conclusion, but don’t wane once you commit to something.
Keep reminders of your central vision in view. Most of us are visual people, who are energized by what we see. Make sure you can see the goal you want to reach.
As you make progress in your development, ask yourself:
What needs a face-lift?
What needs an overhaul?
What needs a funeral?
Lead from within a balanced community. In other words, keep people around you that enable you to remain emotionally and socially healthy.
Paradox Three: Uncommon Leaders Embrace Both Visibility and Invisibility
Martin King was always aware of his influence. Even as a kid growing up in school, he saw his impact, for good or for bad. And he wanted to use it for good. He wrote, “If I were a minute late to class, I was almost morally conscious of it and sure that everyone noticed it. Rather than be thought of as always laughing, I’m afraid I was grimly serious for a time. I had a tendency to over-dress, to keep my room spotless, my shoes perfectly shined and my clothes immaculately pressed.”
Twice as a youth, King tried to commit suicide, because he thought he’d caused the death or sickness of a family member. He threw himself out of a second story window assuming he had influenced a tragedy. Fortunately for all of us—those attempts failed. But they illustrate that young King was deeply aware of the impact of his life and his words.
Examine your core values. Then, assign three actionable steps you can take, as their leader, to model what those values look like in real life. Practice them regularly.
Note where you see team members are falling short. Then, identify actions you can take to demonstrate how staff can rise to the challenge and embody the culture.
Reflect and note the areas in which it is most vital to be visible in your leadership. What’s most crucial to accelerate the mission? What ways can you exemplify that?
Don’t confuse words and actions. Whenever you communicate a key message, find ways to make it a “show and tell” (words and actions) not just “tell and tell.”
Identify team members who need to step up to a higher level in their leadership. Discuss this with them then choose to be absent from meetings so they can step up.
Find one way you can move from “visible to invisible” leadership in the areas you are most natural and prone to cling to. How can you relinquish what you like to possess?
Meet with an accountability partner to discuss what prevents you from moving to invisible leadership. Is it ego? Is it fear? Inflexibility? Are you a creature of habit?
Take the big “IDEA”
and list steps you can take to embody each word: instruction, demonstration, experience, and assessment. Then, follow through.
Paradox Four: Uncommon Leaders Are Both Stubborn and Open-Minded
This balancing act is not easy. When leaders do practice it, however, they become uncommon and extremely attractive to other strong leaders. You will attract the best people when you master it.
When you’re feeling stubborn, think of your “worst” and their “best.” Picture yourself on your worst day and the other person on their best day. This enables me to stay open, to welcome contrary points of view, and to keep learning even from younger staff.
Start sentences with: “I’d be interested to know . . .” or with “Yes, and . . .” instead of “Yeah, but . . .” or “Let me give you context for that decision . . .” Use language that enables you to make your point but invite others’ input. It is vocabulary that keeps the volley going instead of shutting interaction down. It has to be safe.
Rotate staff through your leadership team meetings. Allow team members who’d rarely get a seat at the table to have a seat, to listen in, then invite them to speak to the issues. While they may feel intimidated, you’ll be amazed at what you’ll glean from their input.
Practice reverse mentoring.
Launch an exercise with your team: Start, Stop, and Keep Doing. Annually, leaders can meet with their teams to hear what teammates want them to begin doing, what they want them to stop doing, and what is it they do that they should continue.
Paradox Five: Uncommon Leaders Are Both Deeply Personal and Inherently Collective
People expect more from a leader today, especially during times of hardship. In one sense, the leader becomes much more of a public figure or representative of the people. One who speaks for them, feels with them, and offers a wise response in that context. People need big-picture vision from their leader, someone who grasps the gravity of what’s happened, and the steps required to respond to it. At the same time, people need a leader who empathizes with their personal journey; someone who understands how the struggle feels to individuals, and who articulates the vision with a personal touch.
Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone.
Practice active listening before you say anything.
Be intentional to pay close attention to what’s around you.
Seek to add value to each person with whom you interact.
Pursue a new relationship connection every week.
For each collective message you must offer, add a personal one that’s relevant.
Paradox Six: Uncommon Leaders Are Both Teachers and Learners
In our day of unceasing change, leaders are forced to be teachers, and organizations are forced to adapt. Michael Josephson said, “Great leaders are teachers, not tyrants. They help their followers see and understand more. They inspire them to become more and motivate them to do more.” To do this, however, these leaders must first and foremost be lifelong learners, always adapting and never resting on what they know. Leaders are both receptacles of information and libraries of information. At least that’s true of uncommon leaders.
Practice reverse mentoring across your leadership team.
Make it a weekly (or monthly) goal to learn something new.
Establish regular times for personal and professional growth in your team’s calendar.
Each time you gain an insight, find someone with whom you can share it.
Each quarter, discuss work functions that need to apply the Space Shuttle Defect.
A face-lift. (It’s a relevant idea but needs to be updated in appearance.)
An overhaul. (It was a good idea but now needs an upgrade in how it functions.)
A funeral. (It used to be relevant years ago, but no longer serves its purpose.)
Then, begin scrutinizing your work-arounds. What have you endured that, if genuinely resolved or addressed (fixed, in other words), could accelerate progress?
Paradox Seven: Uncommon Leaders Model Both High Standards and Gracious Forgiveness
Our world today places all leaders under a microscope. Everything is scrutinized, filmed, and posted on social media, with viewers constantly leaving “likes” or “dislikes,” comments and judgments. In this way, most of us feel like we are being voted upon continually. We are all aware of how quickly opinions travel and how one bad move can equal a trial by the jury of “public opinion.” Many a CEO, college president, or athletic coach have lost their jobs after one seemingly innocuous decision that wasn’t aligned with public opinion. Too often, a leader’s response is to become a sort of politician. It dilutes genuine leadership.
Offer the Gift of Clarity.
Shoot for perfection and settle for excellence.
Communicate your high expectations but model your forgiveness.
Do not hide your own accountability to both high standards and self-forgiveness.
Extend the Safety Net Principle.
Practice “Try It Out and Talk It Over.”
“Manage by Walking Around.”
Recruit good people and trust the process.
Ask the right questions to learn from mistakes.
Paradox Eight: Uncommon Leaders Are Both Timely and Timeless
Uncommon leaders in the twenty-first century must balance this very difficult paradox. First, they must embrace and advance timeless principles that make for lasting success; values that have stood the test of time and worked in all generations and in every context. At the same time, these leaders must leverage culturally relevant methods and futuristic resources. They use what is cultural to say what is evergreen. Their core identity is ageless, but their mode of operation is cutting edge and sets the pace for others. They’re passionate to pursue future opportunity, but in their appetite for progress, they never leave behind core virtues, values, and disciplines.
Each time you create a new product or service, ensure that it’s a thing of BEAUTY. As you embrace timeless values that serve as your “plumb line,” consider this gauge for your future offerings:
B—Better. It isn’t just different. It is superior in meeting a need or satisfying a want.
E—Entrepreneurial. It is new and fresh and feels like you’re the first one to offer it.
A—Adaptable. It is a product or service customers can customize and personalize.
U—Unique. It’s nothing like what’s already available; it stands apart from competition.
T—Timely. It fills a hole in real time, being relevant for the moment people are living.
Y—Yearly. It is renewable, creating ongoing revenue through annual upgrades and updates.