By Lee Ellis
The temptation is there for all us, but it’s easier to notice in others – “Why do they lead this organization the same old way? And why do they only see life from their myopic view?” The ability to break free from old mindsets and gain new ones is a valuable attribute—especially for leaders who find themselves thrown into paradox.
My Breaking Free Moment
Occasionally, I’ve been a co-facilitator for an event, and I almost always learn a lot from the experience. One of my fellow consultants, Robin Gerald, opened up my world with a simple graphic—showing how our mindsets drive our attitudes, choices, actions, and behaviors—sometimes for the better and sometimes for negative outcomes.
Robin’s simple explanation was a gift for a lifetime to help me break free from unproductive mindsets or expand an old worldview to see things differently. Recently I’ve used it to explain the importance of paradoxical thinking on leadership.
Leaders must operate in Paradox
Consider the challenge when you encounter paradox and have to acknowledge and operate on two seemingly opposite principles from the list below –
This and This
Visionary <–> Practical
Chaos <–> Order
Results <–> Relationships
Competitive <–> Supportive
Detached <–> Sensitive
Bold <–> Cautious
Quick <–> Patient
Strong <–> Vulnerable
Leader <–> Servant
Tough <–> Compassionate
Generalist <–> Specialist
Convincing <–> Good listener
Can you really be both tough and compassionate? Can you effectively operate with a clear vision of your strategy while working in the day-to-day fog of complexity to achieve your goals?
Life and Death Paradox Encounter
An earthier example of mindset and paradox occurred in my Vietnam POW experience. For months we had been eating nothing but bowls of bland, watery “weed” soup and a piece of bread or cup of rice. Then one day at meal time we caught this waft of a horrible odor—so bad it was literally gagging to some. When we went out in the hallway to get our food, there plopped on our metal plate was a serving of stinky, rotten fish that was more salt and bones than fish.
Even as hungry as we were, many of our mates could not touch it. A few of the more adventurous ones in our group set aside our mindsets about never eating something that was stinky and rotten, and we gave it a try. By the third time they served it, we were hooked and soon everyone joined in. We came to love it because our diet had been so bland, and this nasty stuff was very “flavorful.” Plus, it was a source of protein and calcium that we desperately needed. Paradoxically, rotten and stinky became good in our new mindset.
Living in the Tension of Change and Growth
Leaders don’t need to take on rotten and stinky fish, but they must be flexible and open to new mindsets. Challenge your mindsets. Often a change in perspective is the only way to employ the wide array of behaviors and skills needed to lead effectively.
Be willing to live in the tension—holding two seemingly opposite concepts at once. Our tendency is to want simplicity. We like to reduce things to right or wrong, good or bad, strong or weak. The reality of life says it’s just not that way. We are at once good and bad, strong and weak. In fact, even the best leaders readily admit that they have major insecurities.
How can you learn to live in the tension and embrace paradox? Three tips –
- Try a Picture-in-Picture Approach.
My friend, Laurie Beth Jones, has a good analogy called the “picture-in-picture” approach. We must learn to keep more than one channel on the screen and be able switch between them. For example, a leader needs to be able to expand the “vision” onto the full screen in order to develop strategy while at the same time keeping the practical details of reality in the smaller background screen, knowing they’ll need to swap pictures again to deal with the here and now.
- Develop flexibility in yourself and others.
Push yourself to identify old mindsets that really aren’t working. When you notice that your actions don’t seem to bring good results, consider taking a new perspective. As you get older, flexibility gets harder but it’s worth the effort. Share your growth and mentor others to do the same.
- Remember the Stockdale Paradox.
Leaders need resilience in tough times. Our POW leader, CDR James Bond Stockdale, the senior Naval officer in the camps knew a lot about resilience—spending more than four years in solitary confinement, two years in the infamous Alcatraz camp with many rounds of torture.
In his classic Good to Great, Jim Collins talked about his relationship and conversations with Stockdale. From those insights and the quote below Collins coined the term “Stockdale Paradox” that highlights this dynamic tension and Stockdale’s perspective on resilience:
“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
Stockdale’s life demonstrated that resilience starts with a mindset of “both”. Operating with faith and optimism yet digging into the nasty, painful realities of life—even stinky rotten fish if that’s what it takes to survive. Trust me, I know it works.
Are you willing to open up your mindset and embrace paradox? You may hate the process, but be glad you did. Now that’s kind of a paradox in itself, isn’t it? Please share your wisdom and experiences in this forum.
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