Last month I had the privilege of co-leading the first of several leadership development workshops at Uplift Charter Schools. As a member of the University of Michigan faculty, I have the wonderful opportunity to work alongside Noel Tichy, again. This work is similar to the transformational effort we successfully led with the New York City public school system a few years ago. It is exciting to embark on this journey with Uplift in my home state of Texas.
As part of this work, we engage in an exercise which explores the challenge of ‘paradox’ when making hard decisions and trying to instill a unified approach within your team and organization. It can often be a difficult concept to grasp. In fact, many organizations, political parties, teams, and individuals choose to believe that you cannot have (or hold) two opposing ideas at the same time. Often these organizations or their leaders will force a binary decision: yes – no, either – or. It is my observation that this myopic approach may inhibit and actually retard the resolution of some of our greatest challenges and hurdles within our teams, organizations, and even in our world. And by doing so, this halts finding solutions which can virtually change and innovate the way we approach our various causes whether they be in education or business or charitable work.
What is it that pushes us to think it must be answer “A or B” and not both? (We have all been in discussions where we reach those impasses):
- You can have the product be at that price point OR you can have a high quality product.
- You can have centralized authority and direction OR you can have decentralized entrepreneur-ism.
- You can make the charitable commitment OR you can deplete the reserves for next year’s committee.
- You can have a comfortable retirement OR you can live life each day as if it were your last.
- You can be idealistic OR you can be realistic and pragmatic.
- You can have fiscal conservatism OR you can have liberal humanistic governance.
- You can put children first in the classroom OR you can have the administrative reports in on time.
- You can adapt to ongoing change OR you can provide constancy and stability for your organization.
This is where I draw the line. Who says we can’t embrace BOTH sides of these equations? Can we not find a balance and be in total alignment between the spectrums? Consider these examples:
- We have a clear vision and collective agreement of our goals AND we encourage ongoing innovation and change as the market conditions change.
- We have chosen stable, seasoned leaders within our company AND we encourage entrepreneurial thinking in the ranks to continue pushing for growth and appropriate change.
- We have a lofty futuristic model for our non-profits’ growth AND we pay close attention to the data and our results to drive our decisions around how we deliver against these goals.
- We meet our charitable obligation AND we position next years’ team for success.
I want to offer one simple explanation as to why I believe so many of us opt to use the “OR” approach versus stretching further and entertaining an “AND” approach.
We are afraid. We are afraid we may be compromising one side or the other due to the mercy of the other. We are afraid we will lose the ‘purity’ of choosing one or the other – and thus the ‘power’ of one side. We are afraid we will be settling for a ‘luke warm’ alternative – versus the ‘hot’ OR ‘cold’ choice. We are afraid we will marginalize our success by trying to hold both polarities as true. We are afraid because ‘it has never been done this way before.’ We are afraid of making a mistake.
Well, I believe the strongest leaders and organizations will be the ones that choose to be brave. They will be the ones that embrace the paradox. Successful leaders and companies are those that absolutely entertain BOTH options when making the hard calls. No, they don’t settle for a weak compromise – they create an entirely new approach all together. They are the ones that say, we can do BOTH and do BOTH well.
- We can embrace BOTH philosophies of centralized vision and direction AND decentralized freedom to execute in the way that is most appropriate for that unit.
- We can embrace BOTH long-term objectives with short term fiscal responsibilities.
- We can provide high quality products AND at the lowest price in the market.
The organizations which choose this approach will stretch, explore, innovate, think outside the box and re-frame the entire situation or paradox in which they find themselves. They will do the heavy lifting and will be the ones standing at the end of the day.
Scott Fitzgerald was quoted as saying: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time AND still retain the ability to function.”
How wise this is. Imagine how liberating and empowering it can be for a team or an organization to be able to entertain a collective answer; one that embraces both sides of an issue for a win-win resolution. I am convinced that the leaders and organizations who are able to think large and embrace unconventional approaches to their challenges – will be the ones to change the game AND win the game they are playing.