Ambiguity in Leadership is a Certainty

Anyone who has ever been in a leadership role for longer than, oh, five minutes, knows that leadership is not a prescriptive thing.  As simple as we try to make it with lists of the ten top things to do here or the best five things to do there, it remains complex and full of paradox and ambiguity.  That’s what makes it the challenge it is.

Being in the leadership hot seat means that uncertainty will surely be your companion.  In fact, leaders have many roles that can seem incompatible with one another. And yet, they are all necessary parts of the overall function of every leadership position. There is nothing neat and tidy about them either.  These roles ebb and flow and leaders  must be flexible enough to roll with the tide.

Here are some leadership contradictions that come to mind for me.

Being conceptual and Tactical

It is important for leaders to be able to rise above the day to day mechanics of their operation so they can see where it is all going. This is about having a vision and ideas that give purpose to the work.

There is, however, a limit on the amount of time a leader should spend at thirty thousand feet, without coming down to the ground and working with people to ensure that plans are developed in line with the vision and specific actions are taken to bring it to life.

Leaders who dwell in the land of ideas too long tend to accomplish very little. Leaders who keep their noses to the grindstone and never get off the ground might accomplish a lot but chances are it will be a lot of the wrong thing.

Being a Leader and a Manager

Some people believe that leadership and management are two separate jobs. From where I sit, they’re not.  Both roles belong in the leader’s proverbial back pack. Confusion often raises its quizzical head, though, when we are deciding what to manage; what to lead; and when.

A simple rule of thumb is that leaders manage things and lead people. However, to add complexity to the mix, leaders also manage events and happenings that involve people and that means they must be prepared to manage conflict and other situations that could potentially get in the way of accomplishing the work.

Being a Leader and a Follower

Opportunities for people to show leadership, regardless of their formal status in the organization, are everywhere.  It is a wise leader who will recognize this and make room for it when it serves the organization and supports its goals.  The trick is to recognize when it is appropriate to stand down and become a supportive follower.

In general, allowing someone else to take the lead is a good idea when:

  • s/he knows more about the specific work involved than you do or;
  • s/he has demonstrated more skill in a certain area than you have.

This does not mean that you abdicate your position.  It does mean that you are leading for a time, by following and supporting someone who can take the lead and accomplish the goal better, faster or more efficiently than you can.

The bottom line here is that to do this effectively, you must:

  • know your own strengths and limitations and;
  • know the capabilities of the people who work with you

Controlling and Empowering

We all know that empowering others to express themselves and make contributions to the organizational goals is key to creating vibrant, engaged, working environments. And, while it is the leader’s job to do this, it is also his job to create a controlled atmosphere that connects to the demands and goals of the business.

This means finding a fine balance between being autocratic and being liberal. This is where having a fully activated set of organizational values and a comprehensive, well articulated vision of the future come in handy. They form a framework within which people can be empowered to use their creative abilities and make contributions on their own terms.

There are many other situations where leaders are required to make choices between seemingly contradictory activities.  For instance, when would you encourage individual effort over team development? Under what circumstances might you favour an arbitrary decision over a democratic one?

What comes up for you?



Filed under Leadership Style, Leadership Values, Leading Change, managing paradox, Self Knowledge, Uncategorized

5 responses to “Ambiguity in Leadership is a Certainty

  1. Pingback: A Quote For June 23 2009 « A Dime a Dozen Small Business, Tech and Talk

  2. Gwyn, Love this post. It is so true that leadership involves taking seemingly contradictory paths and often involves supporting multiple approaches that could work in opposition. I believe one of the keys to succeeding in this state of paradox is to work toward balance. I don’t think anyone ever reaches an optimal state to say “Now, my life and my decisions are in perfect balance”. Just as a tightrope walker is consistently adjusting her body weight with each step, leaders must consistently evaluate whether their decisions are balanced to result in the outcomes they hope to achieve.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Susan,

      Yes, I think there are many metaphors we could use to describe the fine balance that leaders need to find between seemingly polar opposites. I like your description of the tightrope walker a lot!
      Thanks so much for coming by and for adding value to the post. I love it when that happens! 🙂

  3. Being flexible, yet clear on expectations.

    Being fun, yet serious.

    These are a couple from my daily experience with my team.

  4. Gwyn Teatro

    Hey Joe,

    Yes, those are two particularly tricky ones too!

    Thanks for coming by!

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