The Competing Demands of Leadership

March 11, 2021

The Competing Demands of Leadership

Our lives as leaders are filled with competing tensions, all grasping for limited resources, including most notably our attention. When you lead, you need to embrace the contradiction of having to be complementary (additional) and decisive (selective). If you can recognize and deal with these four paradoxes below, you’ll be better able to find creative and effective solutions to meet the competing demands. 

Paradox 1: We need to belong, yet be different.

There are two fundamental issues with the paradox of needing to belong yet be different. The first is that there’s bound to be a risk of offending. The other side of belonging is excluding. When you decide you belong to some community or group, that means you don’t belong to the other group. If you support Liverpool Football Club, then that means you do not support rivals Everton or Manchester City. By donning your club’s official gear, you’re establishing a border of sorts. By selecting the community or team to which you belong, you are differentiating yourself. In so doing, you enable an identity. There is no identity without differentiation. It’s a necessary part of the human condition to push for developing a sense of belonging.

The second issue is that, once you have identified with a clan, standing out as an individual also comes with risks. You stand out too much or act in ways that are not copacetic with the group’s mores or standards, you may be thrown out. How, as a community, you manage that deviance is absolutely vital to the long-term health of the group. For, as much as you need to create bonds and unify, if you don’t permit diversity of thought and expression, you will inevitably suffer over the long haul. 

Some systems and cultures force everyone to follow a path regardless of the person. Not only does the system ignore that the individual might have a specific talent and ego, it is a blanket approach that fails to recognize or give value to our differences. Whether societal pressure, an educational system or a business culture, this approach will not create an environment of fulfilled individuals.

Paradox 2: We need to understand our past, yet live for the future.

It’s curious to want to ponder our past, when so much of what we need or aspire to do is disrupt and futureproof ourselves. How much of our past should we worry about when we are planning for the future? 

In order for you and your HR department to be able to identify and hire the right talent, it’s important to understand who you are as an organization. Your brand culture is necessarily a facet of the past. The way you do things, the style of communication, the language and rituals you have developed, are fashioned by your past behaviors. If you want to operate differently, you need to be aware of where you come from. You need to have radical candor. The more honest you are with yourself, the more likely you will be able to transform. 

For the individuals concerned about your brand, your history can and should become a central part of your storytelling. But, within your history, the original reason for your existence, the challenges you faced to survive, the partners and suppliers with whom you worked to get to where you got, are the sauciest ingredients to create your authentic and original brand story. They are genuine and unique. Sticking out and standing for something are vital for your long-term success. 

But sitting on your laurels or overvaluing your past is poor form. Just because a company was “established in 1907” is no prediction of success in the future. I recommend injecting notions of where you come from into what you stand for, to reinforce the legitimacy of your purpose. In so doing, it should help inform what’s important for you in the future and how to make the tough strategic decisions. Once you know who you are and what you stand for, it becomes so much easier to identify and say no to extraneous activities that, individually might be justifiable, but don’t fit into the bigger picture. 

Paradox 3: We must reconcile the quest for order with the presence of chaos.

At a personal level, every person will face some chaos, whether it’s because of the train that’s delayed, a child that comes down with a cold or a sudden change in weather. As you go on, everyone experiences unexpected misfortunes. These are not predictable events. These unexpected events are so regular, that you wonder how they aren’t more anticipated. 

However, in a business world, where we need to craft plans, fill in lines in a P&L and produce to a schedule, it’s normal to need to create order. Yet, with new digital tools and technologies, we need to change playing fields and mindsets. We need to operate where the rules have yet to be written. And where we need to experiment and dirty our hands in trying out new stuff. Most of all, we need to find ways to change our own mindsets as well as those of our employees and, sometimes, other key stakeholders such as shareholders and board members.

It’s a messy world dealing with the human component. We have to deal with emotions and things unspoken. We must listen to one another and flex our empathic muscle to gain perspective and explore diverse options. Once you embrace chaos, you’ll know that you need to expect the unexpected, accept failures, plan for contingencies and connect dots in ways that you can’t predict. These are key components to the new mindset to deal with business transformation. Beyond transformation, it’s about unlearning some old habits and deprogramming the need to put order on everything; and to realize that, in order to stay agile, chaos is going to be a feature of our ongoing lives. You will need to embrace the messiness while seeking order. This is a fundamental concept of a human-first organization.

Paradox 4: We seek truth but gravitate toward stories.

We want the truth, yet are inherently swayed by stories, even those that we know are patently not true. Whereas truth feels secure, it is not a guarantee for gaining trust. In a world where mistrust remains particularly high of business executives, we’d like to believe that we’re being truthful and therefore ought to be believable (in other words, trustworthy). But people don’t hear in the same way that you speak. Everyone comes to the table with their ‘truths’ or stories. 

What does this mean for you as a leader: you need to know your facts but deliver via stories. This is easier said than done. The art of storytelling is not just in the arc of the story, but in the manner of the delivery. The deeper challenge is being believable in the stories you narrate. An important ingredient to great storytelling—in the context of leadership—is the personal narrative. When you are seeking to gain trust, to build bonds and to inspire and motivate through your stories, you’ll want to weave in personal elements. Not just of you as a hero, but of you as an imperfect and struggling individual, even showing vulnerability. Truth and imperfection may seem like odd bed partners at work, but they also form a powerful cocktail for helping to drive a team to where you want to go. It comes down to presenting yourself in a truthful manner. In an ever more transparent world, the more you try to mask over your imperfections, the bigger the liability will become. 

This excerpt from You Lead: How Being Yourself Makes You a Better Leader by Minter Dial © 2021 is reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.

The Authors: 

Minter Dial is a speaker, consultant and author of several books including You Lead: How Being Yourself Makes You a Better Leader, Heartificial Empathy: Putting Heart into Business and Artificial Intelligence, and Futureproof: How to Get Your Business Ready for the Next Disruption