Ambiguity and Contradiction… Leadership Certainties

Anyone who has been in a leadership role for longer than, oh, five minutes, knows that it 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, ambiguous and often contradictory.

Roles that seem incompatible with one another are all necessary parts of the leader’s repertoire. They ebb and flow with the demands of the day and require us to roll with the tide they create.

So what roles am I talking about?  Well, here are just a few that come to mind :

Visionary and Tactician: ~ Having a vision and developing ideas that give purpose to the work are critical leadership functions.

However, there has to be a limit on the amount of time a leader spends at thirty thousand feet.  At some point s/he has to come down to the ground and work with people to ensure that plans are developed in line with the vision and specific actions are taken to bring it to life.

Visionaries who dwell in the land of ideas too long tend to accomplish very little. On the other hand, Tacticians 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.

Leader and Manager: ~ Some people believe that leadership and management are interchangeable. They’re not.  Both are very much a part of a leader’s role but they each require a different focus and set of skills. The key is in deciding when to do what.

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 conflicts that arise and other situations that could potentially get in the way of accomplishing the work.

 Leader and 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. This does not mean abdication of responsibility.  It does mean leading, for a time, by following and supporting someone who can accomplish the goal better, faster or more efficiently than you can.

Controller and Liberator: ~ There is a fine line between being too autocratic and too liberal.  But, it is a line that every effective leader must learn to walk if s/he is going to make optimal use of the talent and skills available in the workforce.

Too much control stifles creativity, disengages people and limits potential.  On the other hand, boundless unfocused freedom can create a kind of chaos that produces more chaos and little else.

Boundaries are important and they can be drawn using a clear, well-understood set of organizational values and a well-articulated vision that, unlike sets of rules, allow for freedom of expression within a pretty wide framework.

There are other situations where leaders are required to make choices between seemingly contradictory roles.  For instance, when would you encourage individual effort over team development? Under what circumstances might you favour an arbitrary decision over a democratic one? And what about the less measurable leadership behaviours?  As a leader is it possible to be humble and still be bold? Anne Perschel thinks so… and so do I.

Simply put, leadership is rife with ambiguity and contradiction. It requires us to be flexible, open-minded, constantly aware of our surroundings and well equipped to respond to the diverse demands that are placed on it.  It is challenging, empowering, satisfying and frightening work.  But, it is never boring.

What do you think?





Filed under Leadership, Leadership Development, Management, Organizational Effectiveness

18 responses to “Ambiguity and Contradiction… Leadership Certainties

  1. Terry Thomas

    Hi Gwyn,

    Once again I checked in just when I needed to hear this message. I was a little frustrated because my manager told me she could not make any promises related to the hospital holiday schedule. Her statement must be based on all the above, a role full of responsibilities, contradictions, and difficult solutions that are practically impossible to please everyone and sometimes please no one!

    Thank you for helping me see her perspective! Terry

  2. Very insightful Gwyn. There was a time when becoming the leader meant you had more power because you had control. One of the legacies of the industrial age is the illusion of control. Power is now more a function of influence – there is little we have real control over especially people. Leading today requires that we embrace the paradoxes you point out. One of the ones I can think to add is the ability to analyze from a cause and effect perspective when we are dealing with systems and processes and bringing systemic thinking when we are dealing with human systems and the significantly more complex world we live in.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      I agree, Susan. That one does add to the complex nature of leadership. There was a time when technical systems and processes were the only “systems” being considered. In fact, chances are, we gave little consideration to the importance of systemic thinking at all, maybe until people like Peter Senge came along to educate us otherwise. Thanks for that…and for coming by.

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  4. Barnie Rossum

    I had a really nice reply in here, but then the blog ate it, complaining that I didn’t enter my email address properly… now I have to add it all again, but I’ve lost my will to do so.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Barnie, So sorry your comment got *eaten*. That’s a first for me. I hope you won’t be deterred from trying again at another time. In the meantime, I appreciate that you took the time make comment in the first place. Thank you. And thank you, too, for subscribing 🙂

      • Barnie Rossum

        You’re welcome for my subscribing. I guess you earned it, so I should be thanking *you* for the trouble you take to write your blog. You say some pretty good things that seem to make sure I’m thinking about the right stuff. I don’t want to miss out on those grounding opportunities… in case I feel like socking a co-worker in the kisser or something. You never can tell when that kind of thing is going to happen.

      • Gwyn Teatro

        No, you never can tell 🙂 Thanks for coming back Barnie.

  5. Pingback: Ambiguity and Contradiction… Leadership Certainties | Accounting and Small Business /Beverly Shares

  6. You are quite correct in your post; Leadership exists in perceived ambiguity. There are always two forces pulling in seemingly the opposite direction. I enjoyed your post and found it very insightful.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Yes, I agree. And, it’s the leader’s job to hold the tension between those two forces. Thank you Stephan, for adding that and for taking the time to comment.

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  9. Pingback: Ambiguity and Contradiction… Leadership Certainties | leadership 3.0 |

  10. Pingback: Ambiguity and Contradiction… Leadership Certainties « gestiondelestresfacil

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