The Paradox of Leadership Tensions

Posted by Carey O'Connor on Sep 13, 2023 5:00:00 AM

The Paradox of Leadership Tensions

Sometimes I speak in extremes. I either love something or loathe it. I am either 100% for something or 100% against it. That was the best food I’ve ever had or that was the worst experience of my life. When I give a recommendation for something, it’s never just “it was alright.” (Notice my unintentional use of “never” - case in point.) If I’m telling you to go here, watch that movie, hire that person…it’s a do-or-die situation. All or nothing!  

In leadership, there isn’t always that extreme. Actually, there’s a dichotomy in leadership that feels opposite, contradictory. It feels like you’re either this or that. But it’s actually paradoxical. There are tensions in leadership that we need to understand, and embrace the nuance of the AND. 

We don’t have to always choose this OR that. For example, do you want great customer service or high-quality products? Probably both. Do we want to move the mission of the organization forward, or help our employees thrive? Probably both. 

In leadership, we need to embrace loads of these tensions every day. Here are just a few that I have noticed rise to the top repeatedly:

1)    Confidence and Humility
You don’t have to have one or the other. Leaders can, and should, have both! There are some misconceptions when it comes to confidence. You don’t have to power up to show you’re confident. That is actually a sign of insecurity. Confident leaders are sure of who God designed them to be and what He has called them to do. Insecure leaders have fragile egos. They use their voice and influence to intimidate, thinking that will yield respect. It produces fear maybe, but not respect. 

Think about the leader you respect the most. Chances are they are confident. They most likely honor those they lead, including you. And they are probably humble. Humility is taking ownership when you make a mistake. Humility is recognizing your own limits. Humility is sharing credit with those who deserve it. My favorite definition of humility is from C.S. Lewis who said, “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” Great leaders walk in confident humility.

2)    Ownership and Teamwork
There has been a lot said on ownership over the last decade or so. It’s such a highly valued quality. Own your area and steward it well. The unintended consequence of only owning your area is territorialism and silos. For that reason, you need ownership AND teamwork. Ownership takes responsibility and has a ‘the buck stops here’ mentality. Teamwork is about collaboration.  

Having a culture of collaboration brings such joy and fulfillment on a team when every member is taking ownership of their areas, while supporting each other and looking out for the good of the entire organization.

Teamwork has the mentality that when one wins, everyone wins. Conversely, if another department fails, everyone fails. 

One word that can help keep this tension in the right space is “WE.” Often, team members will distance themselves from decisions they didn’t make, don’t agree with, or think might fail. When this happens, these team members will typically use “they” and “I” language. “They (referring to leadership) made this decision. “I” would have done it differently.”  Having a “we” culture gives the permission to collaborate and the conviction to move forward with unity. 

3)    Thermostats and Thermometers
Thermostats set the temperature. Thermometers read the temperature. Leaders need to both read the temperature and set the temperature in their organizations, departments, or teams, and discern which is required when.

The question is what’s needed in this situation?

Thermostats: Leaders set the tone. They don’t just react. They aren’t passive. They don’t just succumb to unintended consequences of the organizational culture. They create culture. Organizations are made up of individuals and each individual contributes to the health of the culture. How are you adding value to the culture? How are you intentionally setting the temperature?  Craig Groechel has said he doesn’t let his team say the phrase  “Our people won’t” when faced with challenges. Instead they use the phrase, “We haven’t led them to…” What a great phrase to reorient our mindsets to the fact that we are responsible for setting the tone, leading the way- being a thermostat.

Thermometers: Leaders read the room. They take a pulse on their team. They take inventory of the culture. They read the environment. They ask questions like, “What does my team need right now?”  “How is everyone feeling about this?” When you ask these questions, you avoid assumptions. This also enables you to lead at a sustainable pace instead of ramming ahead and looking behind to see that no one is following you. Caring, thoughtful leaders intentionally check in on how their team is doing and what they need in each season. 

Out of all of these leadership tensions, which stood out most? Which one do you need to work on in this season of your leadership? What other tensions can you think of? 

- Carey O'Connor

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Keep leading well!

Jenni Catron and The 4Sight Group


Jenni Catron Circle

Jenni Catron is a writer, speaker, and leadership coach who consults churches and non-profits to help them lead from their extraordinary best. She speaks at conferences and churches nationwide, seeking to help others develop their leadership gifts and lead confidently. As Founder and CEO of The 4Sight Group, she consults with individuals and teams on leadership and organizational health.

Jenni is the author of several books, including Clout: Discover and Unleash Your God-Given Influence and The 4 Dimensions of Extraordinary Leadership.

Topics: Leadership, self leadership, Leadership Development, Team Culture

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