Being a powerful leader through paradoxes

Feb 12, 2022

Have you ever had to hold two seemingly opposite things true at the same time?

Like, I both love running and hate it at the same time. Or the more I learn, the less I realise I know.

Leadership is full of the need to hold seemingly competing ideas to be true at the same time.

 

Brenè Brown, in her Unlocking Us podcast, interviewed Barack Obama discussing the many paradoxes he has found throughout his life. He talked about needing policy and analysis and smart ideas to solve wicked problems, while at the same time needing stories and passion and courage.

The head and the heart — which many see as competing, yet as leaders we need to be capable of using both.

 

Women have a number of paradoxes that apply specifically to them on their leadership journey, and unfortunately, they can make life pretty difficult.

The idea that you need to be ‘nice’ and risk being seen as too soft to be a leader, and ‘not nice’, then risk being seen as a ‘bitch’.

We need to be pretty, but not too pretty, and either way, if you’re in a prominent role the media will discuss how well, or as is more often the case, how badly, you are doing in these stakes.

And as women we need to be ambitious if we want to get to a leadership role, but not too ambitious, or we go back to being ‘not nice’.

These competing ways of being leave a very thin line for women to travel, with many now forging an entirely new path, tightropes not allowed.

 

Thankfully, many of the other leadership paradoxes that leaders are called upon to embrace are a little easier to accommodate. Which is lucky, as the ability to do so is what’s required from leaders in today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world.

 

Dr Tim Elmore is the author of “The 8 Paradoxes of Great Leadership”, released in 2021, where he discusses 8 competing states a leader needs to embrace to be effective.

Let’s take a look at these and think about how well you are able to balance these seemingly contradictory states.

 

Confident and humble

Based on stereotypes, men are going to be naturally better at the confidence and women at the humility. When you think of the great leaders of the world humility isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind, but perhaps that’s because we’ve lived without it for way too long.

Personally, I love that this mix of skills is recognised as being needed. Humility has been ignored for too long at the cost of many people’s mental health, and often to the detriment of the company (or the country).

So many leadership courses focus on more confidence, especially for women. Perhaps it’s time to swing the pendulum back the other way and focus on more humility for men.

 

Leverage both your vision and your blind spots

To both see and not see at the same time can be incredibly helpful. Some of the greatest feats have been achieved by people who had a vision and yet weren’t constrained by traditional ways to bring it to fruition — because they didn’t know them!

I used this in the early days of introducing customer journey mapping to my projects. I had a vision of involving customers in the shaping of the project, something that hadn’t been done in our branch up until then.

So I found some interested customers, brought them in and engaged with them. They were delighted and the results were vastly different to how they would have been had I not forged ahead with this vision.

What I didn’t know until much later was — I should have followed a very lengthy approval process to talk to customers, that would have either delayed the project or more likely, been stopped before it began to not risk delaying the project. Thank goodness for my blind spots!

So before looking at how everyone else is achieving their vision, go in your own direction — the results can be powerful.

 

Embrace visibility and invisibility

Being a leader requires you to be visible. Not for selfish reasons, but if you want your team to make a bigger impact then you need to be out front showing others what you and your team can do.

If you want to help your team progress and get promoted, being visible to more people allows you to be a sponsor — someone who can vouch for your team when they’re not in the room. And if you want to get more done, then you need to cultivate more connections across, and outside of, your organisation.

At the same time, you need to know when to step back and be invisible. You need to give your team the space to shine without relying on you. You need to give them the chance to step up and be leaders themselves without looking for your advice.

 

Be both stubborn and open minded

This one resonated with me a lot.

If I get an idea in my head that I’m fully confident in, I will be stubborn in seeing it through. I don’t let fear or conformity or ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it’ thinking get in my way.

As leaders we want to be stubborn for our teams as well. Back them to the point of stubbornness — be the bus rather than throw them under the bus.

At the same time, it’s important to hear different ideas, thoughts, perspectives so you can learn from them. So you can grow and see the world differently.

And maybe, just maybe, that idea that you have that you’re so stubborn about, could come to fruition, if only you listened to other people’s input and took action accordingly.

Changing your mind isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign that you’re smart.

 

Deeply personal and inherently collective

The way Dr Elmore describes this paradox makes it particularly relevant for senior leaders, however you can start practicing this at any level.

This paradox is about the way you communicate with your team, or for some, your entire organisation.

It’s the ability to show people you can see and understand the big picture. You have noticed how the group is traveling and you can talk to that.

At the same time, people want to feel like you are talking to them on a personal level. In fact, taking the time to personally speak to people when you can, will leave them feeling you care — and as Maya Angelou famously said, people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.

Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to talk to every single person, and there is an art to speaking to a group but have them feel like you’re talking directly to them. Often this can be helped by an acknowledgment of what they might be feeling on a personal level right now, being careful not to phrase it in a way that makes them feel like this is what they ‘should’ be feeling!

So speak to people at a personal level, let them know you see them, while at the same time, letting them know you also see and understand the bigger picture

 

They are teachers and learners

This is the one I am most passionate about!

I see too many leaders that think they ‘know it all’, after all, that’s why they got promoted right?

Unfortunately, the world is changing too quickly. If you’re not learning, chances are you’ll be out of date very shortly.

Learn the new things happening in your trade. Learn about possible changes in your industry. Learn what the latest thought leaders are saying about how to lead effectively. Most of all, continue to learn about yourself.

At the same time, teaching and guiding others is a part of your job, both intentionally and as a role model. Being mindful of how you behave, how others see you, is important. It doesn’t mean you need to be perfect, far from it. It means you need to be real, and you need to show how you are responsible for your actions when you fall short.

 

Model high standards and gracious forgiveness

There’s a difference between high standards and perfectionism. Modelling high standards is about holding yourself and your team to the highest version you can be, which is never perfect. It’s about having boundaries and clear expectations. The behaviour you walk past is the behaviour you’re accepting, so set those boundaries and clear expectations and take action when they are crossed.

At the same time, great leaders forgive those that fall short of high standards, providing they take responsibility. You look for a lesson learned and/or that the person makes amends from a genuine place of understanding where they went wrong. Continuing to blame after a person makes amends creates a toxic culture where people will hide their mistakes rather than owning up to them.

Remember to practice this one on yourself too. We so often expect more from ourselves and are less forgiving when we fall short. Model how it looks for others when you forgive yourself so they trust your forgiveness of them is genuine.

 

Timely and timeless.

A big part of leadership means looking to the future. Having an eye for what’s coming so you can prepare your team, and as you become more senior, your organisation or business.

Being timely is about changing in a timely manner, not after the fact, because you have seen the writing on the wall. You haven’t held onto things because ‘that’s the way we’ve always done them’.

You also want to be timeless — which in this case is about understanding the past. Understanding what has worked and why. Knowing what the values are that you and your organisation hold and sticking with them even when times are tough or the future is uncertain.

 

It’s a great list to get you working well as a leader. What paradoxes would you add?

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