Great and Good, part 3: Mastering the Tensions and Paradoxes of Leadership
“Of course, life would be easier if leadership was just a list of simple rules, but paradoxes are in inherent in the trade.” – Jack Welch, former Chairman and CEO of GE
Welcome to part 3 of the Great and Good series.
In part 1, I challenged conventional wisdom of leadership excellence while in part 2 I provided instead a different way to look at extraordinary achievement. In this third and final installment to the series, I will share how one achieves this model of ideal leadership: of becoming Great and Good.
To achieve this high standard, we will see, one has to master tension: not one but two tensions.
The importance of paradox – mastering dynamic tension and contradictions
Achieving extraordinary achievement and high-minded character requires the mastery of paradox. Being good and doing great requires dealing with tension – a healthy, dynamic tension – where we continually try to manage two opposing ideas in our quest for being and doing.
Richard Farson in his book the Management of the Absurd highlights the complexity and paradoxical nature of human organizations. He writes that “life is absurd, that human affairs usually work not rationally but paradoxically, and that (fortunately) we can never quite master our relationships with others.” This is tough for the leader and manager:
“The confused manager, careening from trend to trend, cannot become an effective leader as long as he or she continues to believe in simplistic techniques. But a manager who can appreciate the absurdities and paradoxes of business relationships and organizations is surely going to be far less vulnerable to fashion, and therefore stronger as a leader.”
These “absurdities” really reveal a deeper meaning or a truth as Andrew Solomon wrote: “There is only one truth, steadfast, healing, salutary, and that is the absurd.” Farson stresses that paradoxes are seeming absurdities: “And our natural inclination when confronted with paradoxes is to attempt to resolve them, to create the familiar out of the strange, to rationalize them.”
In Leadership Matters: Unleashing the Power of Paradox, Thomas Cronin and Michael Genovese share the challenge and power of paradoxical thinking for leaders:
“Leaders learn to live and cope with contradictions. Effective leaders learn to exploit contrary and divergent forces. They become savvy synthesizers of disparate information, integrative thinkers who can anticipate and read changing contexts…Thus leaders learn to live with ambiguous demands, shifting expectations, and sometimes fickle followers.”
Cronin and Genovese illustrate how paradox shows up in leaders throughout history. The former Czechoslovakian Vaclav Havel’s story is illustrative. The famous writer and intellectual became president of his country following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Here is how Havel reflected on his paradoxical life:
“My life, my work, my position, everything I’ve done, seems intertwined with a suspiciously large number of paradoxes.”
“I’m very unsure of myself, almost a neurotic. I tend to panic easily…I’m plagued by self-doubts…yet I appear to many as someone who is sure of himself, with an enviable equanimity.”
“For many people I’m a constant source of hope and yet I’m always succumbing to … uncertainties.”
Cronin and Genovese write that a leader’s life is usually like that of the Havel example: “a collage of conflicting expectations, dilemmas, and necessities.” As they explain, being a leader is complex business:
“Being a leader is a complex fate. Although contradictions and clashing expectations are part of life, they are especially present in the exercise of leadership. Leaders with great strengths often have great weaknesses as well. And what may be a leader’s strength in one area, or at one time, can prove to be a weakness later on.”
Clashing expectations, contradictions, absurdities, dealing with duality and tension. This is the fate that awaits the aspiring and growing leader.
“Paradox can only be ‘managed’ in the sense of coping with, which is what management had always meant until the term was purloined to mean planning and control.” – Charles Handy, The Age of Paradox
But to be successful we have to manage these tensions or as the famous management intellectual says ‘coping’ may be a more accurate explanation.
To be a Great and Good we have to cope with tension in two areas of our leadership: character and achievement. We’ll explore the paradoxes in these two areas next.
The paradoxes of character
“Paradox and absurdity keep us off balance. In so doing, they produce the humility, vitality, and creative surprise that make life so worth living. But they cannot be controlled. They will always defy the attempt.” – Richard Farson, Management of the Absurd
In my post The Paradox of Character: The two core character traits that determines how we influence others, I explained how the paradox of the character traits strength and warmth serve as a foundation of how we influence others and how we are sized up as leaders.
In reality there is a number of paradoxical virtues that work in dynamic tension to produce the ‘humility’ and ‘vitality’ that Farson explains forms the basis of our character and foundation of our leadership. Here are several others:
- Power and Love. The great Martin Luther King Jr sums up the contradictions in both of these fundamental notions of character: “One of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites…What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.”
- Megalopsychia and humility. We’ve seen part 2 of our series that the megalopsychia is an ancient Greek word that means ‘greatness of soul.’ The Latinized translation of magnanimity is known to us as generosity. But for the ancient Greeks the word had a different meaning. For Aristotle, this was the ‘crowning virtue.’ For the ancients it was referred to as a ‘passionate drive to achieve great things and to be rewarded with supreme honor,’ according to classicist Barry Strauss. We do want leaders with a great soul but at the same time to be grounded with the humility to learn from others and seek different perspectives.
- Self-interest and selflessness. We all know the common safety command from flight attendants who instruct us to put the oxygen mask over our own faces and then of our family members. This example illustrates the importance of looking out for our own self-interest first. But Great and Good leaders are also selfless. In fact, August Turak, author of the Business Secrets of Trappist Monks, turns the concept to self-interest on its’ head. Turak cites the wisdom of Trappist monks explaining their amazing discovery: “It is in our own self-interest to forget our self-interest.” He explains the high mission of the monks is one of service and selflessness. “Business success for the monks is merely the by-product of a life well lived,” writes Turak. That’s sound advice for all leaders.
“And so it is in ordinary life. The good and the great draw others after them; they lighten and lift up all who are within reach of their influence.” – Samuel Smiles, Character
- Courage and compassion. As leaders we need both courage and compassion to do the right thing. Eric Greitens – humanitarian, Navy seal veteran and former Governor of Missouri – reminds us of the importance of these two virtues: “I’ve learned that courage and compassion are two sides of the same coin, and that every warrior, every humanitarian, every citizen is built to live with both…In fact, to win a war, to create peace, to save a life, or just to live a good life requires of us — of every one of us — that we be both good and strong.”
These two virtues are considered staples for the Great and Good throughout history. When the 17th century English essayist Joseph Addison was inspired to create a poem to honor the English victory at the Battle of Bleinheim, these two virtues featured central to describe the victor’s character, The Duke of Marlborough:
Unbounded courage and compassion join’d,
Tempering each other in the victor’s mind,
Alternately proclaim him good and great,
And make the hero and the man complete.
– Joseph Addison (1672-1719), The Campaign
Is there any wonder Confucius exclaimed these virtues universality: “Wisdom, compassion, and courage are the three universally recognized moral qualities of men.”
- Judgement and sympathy. We saw above how Lord Byron was praised “for the constant interplay of judgement and sympathy.”
- Inspiration and Intimidation. Strength and warmth are even expounded in the character of a nation. General (ret) Mattis, US Secretary of Defense, explained that the US has “two powers – inspiration and intimidation,” explaining the appeal of America’s ideals and the strength of our military.
The paradoxes of enduring achievement
As leaders our main task is to accomplish our mission. If we have a foundation of character our mission is imbued with high ideals. As such, it becomes a worthy mission, attracting followers as we positively influence others. But we have to successfully make it happen. We need to be leaders of enduring achievement that allows us to continually accomplish our worthy mission. But this also involves managing tensions and paradoxes:
- Control and no control. Our environment is uncertain and the future can’t be predicted but we should have disciplined focus on controlling our actions and behavior. We want to make sure we organize, plan, set goals and measure our results. But we need to realize as much as we can direct and guide others ultimately we have no control of the actions of others. We control our intentions but don’t control the outcomes.
- Continuity and change. We want to build a foundation of continuity and stability. Management author Jim Collins wrote an influential book called Built to Last highlighting the success of a number of companies. But we also need to ‘build to change.’ In our dynamic world we leaders need to proactively plan for and accommodate change. In fact, the only way to ensure continuity is to embrace and plan for change. We vigorously execute while adapting and overcoming our current challenges.
- Internal and external. All organizations have an internal and external dimension. I highlighted this in a previous post called Leadership decision-making with a four-dimensional lens. To make our mission happen we have to balance the external part of an organization – it’s employees behaviors and our systems – with the internal part – how individuals make meaning and how collectively they get along with one another – culture.
- Present and Future. Our focus has to be on the present and simultaneously on the future. We need to manage for success this time period – month, quarter, year – but prepare and shape the future.
- Aggressive and conservative. To prepare for the future we must be aggressive in executing our mission but cautious in the preservation of our resources. Here Winston Churchill provides us guidance. Dr. Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College, and author of Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government explains how Churchill embodied this paradox. “To know Churchill fully is to understand his combination of boldness and caution, of assertiveness and humility that defines statesmanship at its best. He displayed statesmanship most famously in his leadership during World War II and, just as importantly, in his defense of constitutionalism,” explains Dr. Arnn.
- Confront the facts yet never lose faith. In Jim Collin’s Good to Great, he references the experiences of the late Navy Vice Admiral and prisoner of war survivor, James Stockdale. “We learned that a former prisoner of war had more to teach us about what it takes to find a path to greatness than most books on corporate strategy. Every good-to-great company embraced what we came to call the Stockdale Paradox: You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, what they might be.” I consider this being mindful of both the promise and peril of our situation: We need to communicate both the great opportunity and understand the risk involved.
- The paradoxical logic of strategy: if you want A, strive for B. Strategy is another phenomenon that succumbs to the will of paradoxical logic. Edward Luttwak, political scientist and author of Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace explains the paradoxical nature of strategy. A famous Roman proverb states “If you want peace, prepare for war.” Luttwak illustrates the nature and impact of this paradox at multiple levels of strategy: technical, tactical, operational, theater and grand strategy. In this approach “a buildup of offensive weapons can be purely defensive,” and “the worst road may be the best route to battle.” Strategy is made of such seemingly self-contradictory propositions. Edward Luttwak shows the paradoxical logic that pervades the entire realm of strategy and conflict:
“Consider the absurdity of equivalent advice in any sphere of life but the strategic: If you want A, strive for B, it’s opposite, as in “if you want to lose weight, eat more” or “if you want to become rich, earn less” – surely we would reject all such. It is only in the realm of strategy which encompasses the conduct and consequences of human relations in the context of actual or armed conflict.”
- The patient and customer comes second. One of the most common refrains in organizational leadership is that the customer comes first. It’s seems quite logical for leaders to put the ultimate user and payer of our service or product first. Customer service, customer experience and customer loyalty all mean the customer is our top priority. Right? Two books – one from the field of business, the other from health care – challenge this conventional wisdom. In the Customer Comes Second authors Rosenbluth and Peter explain “Our secret is controversial. It centers around the basic belief that companies must put their people – not their customers – first.” In the book Patients Come Second Paul Spiegelman and Britt Berrett echo the same thought and apply it to a different industry. “Let’s face it: Employees in most companies get treated as second class citizens. If that’s the case, how can we expect them to treat customers well? The same is true for employees in the health care field.” The paradoxical take away for leaders in these fields, and all others, is that you ultimately achieve your objective of serving your customers by serving your employees.
Wrapping up our journey together exploring the ideal form of leadership, I hope it’s clear to you the importance of striving to be a Great and Good leader. We want to study the lives, character and accomplishments of Great and Good leaders. In doing so, we can confront and cope with the paradoxes of character and achievement.