Great Leaders and Their Paradoxes

I have always loved the concept of paradoxes.  A paradox is a self-contradictory proposition.  Paradoxes  are the embodiment of complexity.  Great leaders are full of them.

Extreme Self Confidence v. Humility:

I don’t think you can be a leader without having self-confidence.  Self-confidence and self-worth combined make up self-esteem.  I’ve seen leaders (although not great leaders)  without a good sense of self-worth, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a leader who didn’t have a realistic belief in his own ability to deal with the situation.  It is this self-confidence that inspires others to follow.

At the same time, great leaders demonstrate real humility.  Self-confidence does not preclude humility.  Since self-confidence is a realistic view of your abilities, humility is a realistic view of your limitations.    Humility is a demonstrated sense of modesty.  Humble leaders can take feedback, can admit their mistakes, and are much more respected by their followers.

Decisive v. Consensus Building:

A great leader is comfortable making decisions based on the information that is available.  Decisions are the lubrication that make organizations go.  Without decisions, things slowly grind to a halt.  Sometimes there just isn’t enough information to make a comfortable decision.  Great leaders step up and make the decisions anyway.

At the same time, great leaders have the skill and know the value of consensus building.  There are times when it is best to take the time for the group to make the decision, rather than for the leader to make the decision alone.  Great leaders know not only that is, but they also know how to do it.  They allow followers to participate in the organization decision making and get follower buy-in in the process.

Leader v. Follower:

Leaders challenge and change.  They inspire and energize.  Leaders lead.  It goes without saying that great leaders are leaders.  Leaders do not lead 100% of the time, however.  Leaders follow sometimes, too.  They follow thought leaders.  They follow their bosses and their heroes.  Sometimes, they even follow their followers.  Great leaders are as comfortable being followers as being leaders because they aren’t so into themselves that they need to lead all the time.

Detail Focused v. Big Picture:

There are tons of examples of Executives who failed because they weren’t paying attention to the details.  This does not mean that you need to be in the details all the time;  in fact, that is probably as bad as not being able to deal with details at all.  You do need to be able to dive into the details and spot the aberrations when the situation arises that demands it.  Steve Jobs was famous for his ability to crawl into the details of his products.

At least as important is the ability to see the big picture.  The big picture includes what is going on outside your organization, outside your community, and outside your industry.  You need to be able to see how things fit together and “what is wrong with this picture.”   Fred Smith saw the big picture when he came up with the idea of Federal Express.  Steve Jobs saw the big picture when he saw the need to combine extreme marketing concepts with bleeding edge technology ideas.  The ability to see the big picture can keep you going long after others would have given up.

Hands Off v Hands On:

Delegation is a very important skill for leaders.  The higher up you go the more you need to be able to delegate.  Except when you need to be hands-on.  Situational Leadership Theory by Hershey and Blanchard suggests that different leadership styles are required in different situations.  In other words, it isn’t always appropriate to delegate, even if you are at the top of the organization and have Executives reporting to you.  It isn’t appropriate to be hands-on all the time–your more experienced/senior employees will feel micro-managed.  You need to understand what your personal style is, when you should be using it and when you should be flexing your style.

The Dark Side–The Success Paradox:

Success changes us.  Those changes are mostly good.  We become more confident, more comfortable in our skins.  But we also develop blind spots.  Success robs us of the uncertainty that helps us be more sensitive to our environment.  We develop blind spots about our personal flaws.  We discount negative feedback about our interpersonal skills.  We aren’t as open to seeing organizational issues.  Most importantly, we miss the big, external-to-the-organization contextual issues–the world is changing around the organization and the organization is so busy doing what it does, that it misses it.  Think Borders with Amazon.

Great leadership requires complex responses.

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Filed under Career Development, Executive Development, Leadership, Reframe, Success

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