The longer I study leadership, the less certainty I find in it and the more confused I get. I’ve found that successful leaders use widely disparate styles and strategies to produce similar successes. Have you noticed that as well?
If you haven’t, consider this example where opposing styles both produced success. One leader achieves success by persuading his followers to respect him. By contrast, retired U.S. Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who led American forces in the 1992 Gulf War, found that success depended on him loving his troops, and them loving him in return.
So, which style is right? The tactics of each are quite different. So what’s a leader to do? Conventional wisdom says that a business leader shouldn’t get too friendly with his or her employees. We’ve all heard leaders say, “I don’t care if they like me or not. I just want them to respect me.” Indeed, respect promotes productivity. In a similar way, according to recent studies conducted by the Gallup Organization, productivity improves when an employee feels cared about and close to his manager.
There are many examples of popular leadership ideas opposed by equally popular ideas. Consider the following: being tough vs. being vulnerable; being self-confident vs. being humble; controlling employees vs. empowering them; and don’t rock the boat vs. ride the waves of chaos. The confusing messages are everywhere and the dilemma is the same for applying opposing principles (i.e., justice vs. mercy; optimism vs. realism; and self-discipline vs. spontaneity).
It’s a crucial life lesson -- one that many of us regrettably learn late -- that success, leadership, happiness, parenting, and life itself unavoidably consist of contradictions. Paradoxes and polarities are not enemies, but rather beneficial forces. Paradoxes challenge us, and invite us to find better solutions.
History offers many examples. An idea in economics, government and societies usually spawns its very opposite and, many times, both have benefited us. Think of the U.S. Constitution with its checks and balances and even our two-party system (which makes pluralistic democracy possible). Think of art, where Romanticism opposed Classicism (a conflict at the heart of much literature and most literary movements). Consider how reason opposes emotion, and order limits freedom.
You may ask, “What does all this have to do with running a floor covering business?” The simple answer is: at every turn.
Your greatest struggles emerge from the conflicts between priorities and polar principles. Examples include customer satisfaction vs. profitability; thinking long-term (preparing to sell my business) vs. thinking short-term (what’s this month’s cash flow?); employee satisfaction vs. employee accountability; and giving time to your business vs. time for your family. The list is nearly endless.
When faced with such paradoxes, do you devise ways to persevere and finesse them? Or do you mostly complain? Do you cope or punt? Successful leaders live the paradoxes. Consider some key characteristics of Abraham Lincoln as identified by Donald T. Phillips in his 1992 book “Lincoln on Leadership”:
- Charismatic yet unassuming.
- Consistent yet flexible.
- The victim of pervasive slander and malice, yet immensely popular with the troops.
- Innovative and willing to take risks, yet patient and calculating.
- He fired many generals, yet first gave them ample time and support to produce results.
- He claimed not to have controlled events (his policy was “to have no policy”), yet he did control events to a large degree by taking charge, being aggressive and extraordinarily decisive.
Of course, opposition wasn’t easy for President Lincoln to manage, nor is it easy for us. If we have any wits, we struggle with them. Rather than struggle against contradictions, why not work with them and finesse them? Eighteenth century poet William Blake warned, “Whoever tries to reconcile [the contraries] seeks to destroy existence.” Similarly, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Niels Bohr found, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”
Does that not make leadership confusing and complex? In the face of such diversity of style, which model should you follow? Your challenge is not hopeless. After intensive study of paradoxes, I’ve identified some principles that are useful in relieving our frustration and guiding us through the struggle.
Accept, don’t fight, the existence of contradictory principles, strategies and priorities. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The sign of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing views in the mind at the same time and still have the ability to function.” Use your intelligence to address both views. When you do, it’s beautiful -- the friction between the opposing principles usually enhances leadership and performance.
In the past, high tolerance for uncertainty was found only in geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci. Now, as change accelerates, we need the ability to thrive in ambiguity. Poise in the face of paradox is key not only to effectiveness, but to sanity in a rapidly changing world.
Don’t accept experts’ simple formulas without considering the potential contradiction. In the literature, we find many “successful management” formulas. For every formula, however, there’s an equal and opposite formula. Each has proponents, because all the formulas work. So, don’t accept an expert’s formulas until you study and understand them. Consider their consequences in your store.
Welcome the abrasion between ideas as a source of better ideas. The friction between opposites can enlighten us to produce better decisions, styles and strategies. Be willing to study polarized viewpoints and priorities. By doing so, you’ll sharply increase the probability that you’ll generate unexpected synergy.
The irony is that, out of any process keyed on abrasiveness, you develop a corporate culture of heightened sensitivity and harmony. I know that friction between individuals and groups can cause discomfort and separated people. However, creative abrasion between ideas can produce better ones.
You don’t want abrasion when you drive a car or want to move a group of people forward, but you do want it when designing a car and searching for better ideas before the group moves forward. “In great teams, conflict becomes productive,” writes Peter Senge, author of “The Fifth Discipline.” “The free flow of conflicting ideas and feelings is critical for creative thing, and for discovering new solutions that no one individual would have come to on his own.”
Accept the fact that no one style, strategy or answer works in every situation. The message of polarities is that there’s no always-right action. What worked last time may not work this time. If we try to make it work anyway, we may waste our efforts. You may have been caught in the common trap of the “tyranny of the OR.” Avoid the logic that tells you to do either A or B. Instead, embrace the “genius of the AND” -- the paradoxical view that allows you to pursue both A and B at the same time.
Look for value within each of the opposites. Finesse them together, and adjust as needed. In my efforts as a parent, I have learned that permissiveness does not work but neither does dictatorship. More often, children develop better under a blending of the two. This is what might be termed “authoritative parenting,” which focuses on clear rules with consequences, high expectations, and unconditional love and respect for the children.
When we work with contradictions, whether at home or in the store, we rarely succeed when we indiscriminately mix equal amounts of each. Working with paradoxes is like adjusting the water temperature of your morning shower. You adjust the knob until the water feels right. In other words, you “finessed” the hot and cold water into the best blend. Then, as you are enjoying your shower, someone changes the dynamic by flushing.
As with leadership, when the dynamic shifts, you must re-finesse the situation. In the shower, that’s not difficult. In the store, it is -- but the procedure is identical. You readjust your tactics.
Appling both of the opposing strategies can lead to better results. When confronted by a problem, managers would be wise to carefully consider all sides of the issues involved, no matter how paradoxical or absurd.
Don’t consider this as advice to follow, but as a motivation to reflect and think. In the next several installments of The Art of Retail Management, I will discuss the conflicting paradoxes with which a business owner struggles.
Instead of fighting and trying to destroy paradox, we should celebrate it. The struggle and conflict between opposing priorities and principles will actually help us to optimize our efforts.
Remember you always have at least two choices: do this or do that. But, you may regret both, because there’s no one answer for every situation. Nevertheless, cope and endure with confusion. Be poised. Be ready to call an “audible” and finesse the shower knob.