The Paradox of Leadership

PARADOX: A seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true.

The primary paradox of leadership (and there are many) is to be consistently inconsistent.

You probably know that both of these are not the right approach; they’re two ends of a spectrum. On one end, a leader is being way too rigid in their approach, preventing others from being creative, innovative or having any ownership of their work. On the other side, a leader who is too flexible, can be taken advantage of and may not be respected by their team.

In a nutshell, this is the Leadership Paradox. Balancing when to be rigid and when to be flexible is one of the hardest things to learn for a leader. You have to decide what you’ll be consistent with vs where you’ll be flexible to circumstance, personality, and performance.

You can ill afford to be inconsistent with the following:

  1. Your values and those of your organization. The minute you compromise values, their meaning is lost. It’s the difference between people proudly looking at the values on the wall or laughing at them.
  2. How you model the way. As leader, you set the culture for your team. Nothing has a bigger impact on culture than the example you set. People may or may not listen to you, but they always watch your actions. Those who follow model the behaviors of those who lead. How you act says much more than what you say. When your actions reinforce what you say, you will be respected and your team will act as you do. When you fail to set the right example, they will see you as a hypocrite and you aren’t likely to see the results you hope.
    3) Investing in your people’s development. Your journey to leadership was about growing your self. As leader, the journey is now about growing others. It’s easy to get bogged down in process and profitability, while letting those responsible for both devolve and eventually go away. It’s also easy to put time in with your star players, while letting others with potential also lose interest and conviction. When you set a standard for others and then set a higher one for yourself, without realizing it, you’ve set expectations that others expect you to meet, especially with them.
  3. Having one on ones. No matter the experience level or tenure of someone on your team, you need to have one on ones with them. There’s a time to fix problems, give and receive feedback, talk about their career growth, coach them, and more. If you don’t set aside that time regularly to cover these topics in a one on one, you’re unlikely to talk about them at all. While each person’s one on one will be a bit different in style and topics covered, it’s essential that everyone on your team has them if you want your organization to be a good place to work, grow and develop.
  4. Holding people accountable.
    When there are little to no consequences for bad behavior or broken promises, not only will the undesired behavior continue, it will accelerate and spread. I’ve seen more leaders than I’d like attempt to improve their environment by either moving to a new location or bringing in a slew of new managers in hopes of ‘shaking things up.’ They learned very quickly that dysfunction loves new places and new faces.
    No one respects double standards, and your most challenging people will always be looking for where you set the bar. If you hold the bar high, they will perform well, but if you lose accountability, their performance will be the first to slip, and others will soon follow.

Being a leaders is knowing when to be rigidly flexible. The key is adaptation. You must scan the environment constantly and be ready to pivot in real time. 

You can afford to be inconsistent with the following:

  1. How you help people grow. While you need to consistently invest in the growth of your people, how you do it should vary person to person. Some people are hyper-aggressive and will want to advance quickly. They may need more hands on mentoring and be hungry for multiple ways to learn. Meanwhile, others may enjoy their current role and would like to go deeper in their existing skills. The best way to help them grow may be via the projects you assign or who you assign them to work with. There may be still others that aren’t hungry to grow at a given time. Sometimes it’s a lack of motivation or not knowing what their goals are. Other times, there can be personal reasons. It’s your job to know those reasons.
  2. How you motivate. Everyone on your team will not respond to the same efforts the same way. For example, introverts often want more time to consider an idea before discussing it privately, while extroverts have no problem giving immediate responses regardless of the setting. Trying to motivate everyone the same will product average results overall. One size does not fit all when it comes to leading people.
  3. Trust and oversight. Trust is earned. The better someone performs and the more they meet your standards, the more you can give them freedom in their work. If you’ve seen someone deliver repeatedly on a certain type of project, you can likely ease off on the number of check-ins before the completion date (though you should never stop them entirely).
  4. How hard to drive people. Some leaders are laid back and some are hard driving. Unfortunately, doing either all the time will negatively impact the long term performance of your team. Feeding a hummingbird with a firehose will produce the same result every time.
  5. Ownership & Control. You must trust your team and give them ownership of their work. You want to hold them accountable to the results you agreed upon, while being flexible on how they get there. The common fear that keeps most leaders from doing this is the fear of making mistakes. You must take risks with people if you want the best from them. Think of it like the waterline principle means that it’s ok to make a decision that might punch a hole in the boat as long as the hole is above the waterline so that it won’t potentially sink the ship. By recognizing which risks are safe to take alone and which are not, you can give your team more autonomy, while making failure safe. Both will help your team flourish and grow, while ensuring you avoid any catastrophic problems.

Truth be told, no one said leadership was ever easy. However, if you understand how to balance this leadership paradox, it sure makes everything overall much easier to accomplish.

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Written by Maxie Carpenter

Maxie Carpenter was formerly Vice President of HR & Talent Development for Wal-Mart Stores. After a 27-year career, he began to pursue a number of other interests, which included alternative education, nonprofits, consulting, writing and public speaking.

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