The Paradox of Leadership

user Darren Gold

At its core, leadership is about the ability to leverage paradox. There are five polarities that are critical to effective leadership.

Last week, I moved into a new role – the CEO of The Trium Group, the consulting and coaching firm where I have been a Partner for the past six years. I have had the incredible fortune in my career to have been part of several extraordinary organizations over the past 25+ years. But Trium stands alone. For the past 23 years, Trium has focused on a singular mission – to change the world by changing the way business leaders think. That is what we do each and every day. And we do it consistently with excellence and integrity.

While I focus on questions of leadership all day long, the start of a new role has given me an opportunity to reflect more deeply and personally. At its core, leadership is about the ability to leverage paradox. To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the sign of first-rate leadership is the ability to hold two opposing truths simultaneously and still function well. And there are no shortages of opposites in our increasingly complex world. How does a leader give autonomy to those she leads while still holding them accountable? How does one deliver bottom-line profit and drive above-average growth? How does a leader honor what’s already working and yet still drive critical change? These are natural, healthy tensions that not only need to be managed but leveraged. The key question to ask as a leader is, “How do I get the benefits of both and minimize the downsides that come from choosing one to the neglect of the other?” Of the dozens of so-called polarities, I have found the following five to be the most important and to yield the highest leverage in leadership.

Head AND Heart

This is an interesting paradox. Most leaders preference the head. They are analytical, strategic, and data-driven. These are essential qualities. But when they come at the expense of the heart – intuition, compassion, and, yes, love – an organization is deprived of a fundamental need. In my work, I have found that power and performance, in the best sense of those words, are found in the integration of the head and heart. As I look at my own leadership, it is the combination of an open heart and a keen intellect that I am committed to leading with.

Challenge AND Celebrate

This is the polarity that I have focused most on integrating. It is still a work in progress. It involves holding myself and others to incredibly high standards and, at the same time, seeing and appreciating myself and those I have the privilege of leading fully. To bring both of these qualities to bear in equal measure is critical for any leader.

Direct AND Empower

This paradox is perhaps the most misunderstood. We live in a time where empowering teams and individuals has been elevated to the neglect of its opposite – being decisive and directive.  People thrive on autonomy. But we also need direction. We need leaders who are able to discern when to make bold decisions and go it alone, even when it means being unpopular and misunderstood. And here is where the interdependence of polarities shows up. A leader who is leading with head and heart, who both challenges and celebrates his team, will know when to act decisively and will have the trust of his organization to do so.

Short-Term AND Long-Term

I have yet to meet a leader who doesn’t struggle with this tension. There is enormous pressure to deliver immediate results. For most companies, producing near-term results is an existential requirement. Yet, all great leaders have the ability to focus on the longer-term horizon. They possess a comfort with the ambiguous nature of this paradox and the courage to take risks that most don’t possess. This is why they lead. And if they integrate this polarity effectively, it is why they succeed.

Humility AND Confidence

Most leaders confront the fact that they really have no idea what they’re doing. Much of what they are being asked to do they may not have done before. And, even if they have, the context is sufficiently unique that it feels like they are breaking new ground. Great leaders embrace this feeling. They have the humility to admit they don’t know. This allows them to listen and seek out advice. At the same time, however, they project an authentic, embodied confidence born out of a maturity that recognizes no one ever really knows. I feel this each and every day. I endeavor to bring a deep humility to each and every situation along with an orientation to action driven by a deep inner knowing and confidence in myself.

We are all being asked to lead in some form or another. Leadership is a responsibility and a privilege. It is by embracing complexity and having the wisdom to leverage paradox that we will be able to fulfill this responsibility and lead with grace, ease, and effectiveness.

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