Leadership is a balancing act. Imagine the tightrope walker at the circus, precariously navigating from one side of the big top to the other.
If the walker puts too much weight on one side or the other, they’ll take a big fall.
And so it is for those who lead, and what’s more, it requires a deft sense of self-awareness and guile- and just a bit of schizophrenia.
The thing is, leaders have to “be” many things, and a lot of them are seemingly contradictory – paradoxes that hover over our daily decisions and interactions and threaten our delicate balance on the leadership tightrope.
How we work effectively with these paradoxes can be the difference between big success or a miserable failure.
There are seven in particular that, if navigated well, will keep you firmly in control and pushing forward on the tightrope:
1) Process vs. Innovation – On the surface this looks more like a huge battle; the free thinking forces that love chaos and drive change, against the system-driven processors who thrive on order and repetition. In reality, under great leadership innovation and process work in tandem, where the more solid the processes, the more time is saved for great innovation.
2) Openness vs. Secrecy – There’s a big push for transparency these days in the workplace; where leaders need to put themselves “out there” as more human and open. That’s certainly necessary, and I’m a big believer, but I also know that there is a very fine line here, and oftentimes a modicum of discretion can make a big difference. I’d ask yourself the question “Do they need to know this to help them do their job to the best of their abilities, and, find fulfillment in doing that job?”.
3) Risk-Taking vs. Conservatism – Leaders have to stand on both sides of this fence, because every situation is different, and the stakes on either side are very high. Take a foolish risk, you can bring down the company. Stand still too long, and everyone passes you by. The key here is one word: Facts. The more information and facts you know, the better you can face this paradox. I realize that many decisions can’t be made with 100% of the necessary information on hand, but with a focused discipline of good data collection and fact finding you stand a much better chance of getting it right more often.
4) Hubris vs. Humility – This is where leadership has to (almost literally) wear two faces; there’s no question that a confident leader is important, because they set the tone for the entire organization they lead. On the other hand, showing humility once again emphasizes the human side of the equation, and lets everyone know that it’s not all about you. This balancing act requires nothing more than good old common sense (i.e. if you messed up, you fess up – people will see right through it if you blame somebody else), and a keen awareness of the “pulse” of those you lead.
5) Talking vs. Listening – I look at this like a ratio; if I’m talking more than 50% of the time in any meeting or one-on-one discussion, I’m not doing enough listening. But, there HAS to be balance here. We’ve been told so many times that we need to “Be a good listener“. Yes, we do. On the other hand, leaders must show the way, they must teach, they must bring new perspectives to the table, and they must inspire. And that does require speaking.
6) Accountability vs. Leniency – Are there occasions where you should give people another chance even though by every objective accountability measurement they should be let go? Yes. There are intangibles. There is context. There are extenuating circumstances. Accountability is paramount, no question, and in most cases the lines you draw should be solid ones. But sometimes compassion and foresight need to come into the equation. When it comes to people, thinking before acting is a winning strategy.
7) “Nice” vs. “Tough” – This seems like a totally unworkable combination, and a truly two faced posture, but I’ll tell you a big secret backed by research– they aren’t incompatible at all. They are two sides of the same coin. And here’s why: It’s the combination that produces the most employee engagement and satisfaction, by far. Because if they trust and respect you, they will WANT you to push them harder. They will believe that the greatness you are driving for is worthy of that effort, and toil, and perhaps personal failure. As leadership researchers Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman have noted, “The two approaches are like the oars of a boat. Both need to be used with equal force”.