The Leadership Conundrum

Posted on: October 20, 2021

Leadership, at whatever level it takes place, is always about creating and maintaining a positive and trusting partnership with others, in order to develop and/or maintain a high degree of personal influence, which can create or effect positive change.

I wrote this leadership definition early on in my career as a leadership trainer, and during my decade and a half traveling the World, this definition was tested constantly. While not everyone I taught agreed with every aspect of the statement, the general intent of the statement remains true: good leaders create positive ripples through their relationships and actions.

During my career, I worked with some of the largest multinational military organizations and some of the smallest charity and non-profits in the World. However, regardless of “influence” as a key precept in leadership, there is another fundamental truth about being a leader with integrity that rose across organization types again and again: it is not easy to be a good leader.

The conundrum is that real, effective leadership is messy, challenging, stressful, and potentially very, very rewarding when everything comes together. Individuals who lead with integrity have consistently expressed to me over the years how challenging it is to maintain momentum while being open to all opinions, collecting data which may or may not support your gut feeling, weighing all outcomes, and consistently acting with intent. All of this while maintaining truth to core values.

I call this push and pull of leadership: Positive Tension.

Positive Tension is Necessary

Positive Tension in leadership means pursuing the powerful pull of innovation and growth, while respecting the current conditions in a situation.

In my run coaching, I talk often about the positive tension of the group. As we move, we almost always experience spread; meaning that some runners are faster, some slower. At the lead edge, the runners pull everyone forward creating momentum and a sense of striving for the next level of growth. At the other end, we find the anchor runners whose role is to moderate pace and keep the group from a potentially damaging outcome: too much, too soon. For runners, too much too soon means injury.

In leadership, this translates to the thought that while we need to pursue the next reality, we also need to respect those who ground us or will come along with us at a slower pace. We must find a positive tension between our desire to become, and our duty to serve the current needs of our “community.” This balance of momentum and grounding is critical, if we want our whole community to feel respected, heard, considered.

Leadership Based Communication is Messy

One of the keys to unlocking positive outcomes is the ability to hold difficult conversations while maintaining the relationship with those whom you find yourself in conflict. I don’t think anyone goes to work with the intent that they want to fail, disrupt, or inhibit forward growth. I believe that all good leaders want to succeed in their chosen mission. This means that difficult conversations would, therefore, be critical to understanding differing opinions, building awareness, and charting a path toward more efficacy in our decision making.

By their very nature, difficult conversations are most often borne out of a difference of opinion. To lead or effectively participate in a difficult conversation about a situation, at least one of the parties involved must be calm, pragmatic, tactful and have developed a sense of ethical leadership among attendees. If this sense of ethical leadership exists, this person becomes the key moderator who works to maintain the positive tension and find a pathway through conflict. I try to enter every conversation with the intent to build the greatest outcomes for all. While it may not always go smoothly, in the long-term, it reinforces the potential to create or effect positive change.

I often say that logic and emotion seldom exist at the same time. Most often individuals with whom we find ourselves in conflict are entrenched either in emotion or logic. The leader who is focused on positive outcomes realizes that both need to exist in a defined balance. This means these difficult conversations need to respect the passion of the attendees, while considering the realities of forward momentum, in order to build a bridge of understanding.

Finally, on this topic. You will not win every conversation to your side, nor should you lose every conversation to smooth over conflict. A good leader understands it is the consistent attention to betterment and the most beneficial outcome for participants that both, wins the day and creates the greatest long-term impression of your communication abilities and subsequent influence.

The Conundrum: Consider, Decide, Act

Now we come back to the leadership conundrum:  no matter what you decide or do, it will always be the wrong decision or action for some of the people you have worked so hard to include. Every decision or action will not be far enough to “their side” for some and too far to the “other side” for others. This disconnection can be a paralyzing space for emerging leaders; act and be condemned, don’t act and be condemned.

One of the more significant threats to leadership comes from the community itself, specifically online and social media.

The process of reporting has accelerated over the years, to a frenzied pace of trying to outpace and out-post other media. In recent weeks, media here in my hometown have prematurely leaked stories which were not fully accurate, not fully researched, and in one case the entire story and headline were fabricated to capture a sensationalized reaction, including a fabricated quote. All this, to maximize uptake among social media consumers.

If you believe some of the reports recently, social media platforms are also promoting and escalating conflict on their sites to increase readership and revenues. This leads to a negative tension situation, where conflict overtakes constructive conversation. By its very design, social and online media often undermine the potential of positive tension to create negative tension through an overwhelming move toward criticism, complaint, and personal attacks that inhibit positive outcomes. In these circumstances leadership, and the very act and nature of community building suffers at the hands of discord.

The reality of leadership is such that even though you are doing what you are doing for the greater good and the long-term rewards of your community, it is a lonely place. You are bombarded by vocal critics for your every thought and action even while your supporters quietly acknowledge your efforts in the shadows, out of the glare of online chaos, for fear of being targeted.

What is a leader to do?

Follow these simple precepts and your leadership will have its best chance at success:

  • CONSIDER as many aspects as possible including embracing Positive Tension and allowing for all voices (even though its messy).
  • DECIDE – make strong and positive decisions which benefit the most people possible, communicating what you have decided, why you have decided it, and how you will move forward.
  • ACT – Don’t get mired in online disruptions. Focus on being a leader, implementing what you have decided, and then use online discord as an opportunity to educate and inform.
  • BE the LEADER – If these words resonate with you, you are a leader already. Do what you say you will do, with integrity and considered acts.

Finally, on those days when it’s a bit more difficult (because it often is), just do what needs to be done, base it in integrity, and embrace what comes, because you have done everything you can to manage that burden.