The Paradox of Leadership: How Do You Cultivate Diversity of Thought AND Hold People Accountable?

I recently had the honor of speaking with three other exceptional speakers in LA at the gorgeous Terranea resort. Since our four sessions were running concurrently, we couldn’t see each other present, so I made a point of meeting each one of them before the presentations started.

As one of the speakers was prepping his slides, I introduced myself, congratulated him on his recent (and exciting) promotion and started a conversation. He then asked me where I was from. When I replied, “Washington DC”, he exclaimed, “I love DC!”

I Was Shocked Because No One Had Ever Said That to Me Before

I was shocked because no one has ever said that to me before. Usually, when I mention DC, most people back away as if I have an illness, and look at me askance, muttering something about Beltway Bandit and politics. So I was genuinely curious when I asked why he loved DC. His answer? “Because it’s so elegant. And everyone there is so smart.”

As I walked away from that conversation, his comment kept running through my mind for over a week.

I was preparing for or a DC-based OpEd Project class, to learn how to write opinion pieces. I asked myself: “Is that true? Is everyone smart in DC?” I then started to wonder, “Can I hold myself against these uber smart people who talk foreign policy, poverty rates and global GDP at the drop of a hat? They’re going to write Op-Eds about “real” things. How in the world will I ever sway someone’s opinion writing about the paradox of leadership?”

Image from the OpEd Project

During the Op-Ed class, one concept jumped out at me. Their definition of thought leadership is “an evidence-based argument that is timely and of public value”. I felt myself have more confidence as we worked our way through the day.

Evidence based? Check. I’m thorough with my stats and research.

Public value? Check. I know that my work brings value to leaders all over the country.

Timely? Check. I admit I don’t read as much as I could; yet I can discuss global events without much trouble.

However, I kept tripping over the word ‘argument’. All day I felt uncomfortable with that word, yet couldn’t quite figure out why. To me, an argument means a type of conflict where someone wins and someone loses. So was I uncomfortable with writing an op-ed that might create conflict? Although I don’t go running toward conflict, I use TKI and manage conflict well. So that wasn’t what was making me uncomfortable. Was I nervous about online trolls making anonymous, rude comments on my post? When the Washington Post dubbed me the Generational Guru, the trolls were brutal and I was upset for days. Nowadays, although I don’t look forward to it, I know to expect trolls. So that wasn’t what was making me uncomfortable.

So what was it? Then it hit me. The paradox of leadership was causing my problem. In my mind, if I make an argument, then I might shut down a part of the conversation and lose diversity of thought in the discourse. And this is completely opposite of what I teach in my leadership development programs.

Then it Hit Me. The Paradox of Leadership Was Causing My Problem.

For example, if I write an op-ed titled “Our Economy Will Thrive When Male CEOs Remove Gender Bias”, I would likely capture the attention of some readers. Yet male CEOs may read the title and ignore the piece. And if male CEOs don’t read the piece and engage in the public discourse, then I won’t hear their perspective. And listening to other people’s perspectives is crucial to leadership.

When I create leadership development programs, I work with senior teams for 6–9 months, helping them build their technical skills as well as their EQ, listening and empathy skills. By focusing on these skills, both their leadership and bottom line improve.

Yet most leaders don’t truly listen; they just pretend they are listening, biding their time until they can speak. Or worse, they just jump in and interrupt the conversation. Yet, if they don’t listen, they can’t put themselves in the other person’s shoes and learn from the other person’s perspective. When they can’t do this, they don’t include a vital group to the conversation.

I value being direct, results-focused, open-minded and including other perspectives in my work and life. I value how inclusion increases connection and engagement. Yet if I’m always looking out to the other person, I’m deflecting or diminishing what’s in front of me. And that’s a wasted opportunity.

It’s like the parent telling the child to “Eat your vegetables. There are starving children in Africa.” Instead of having a conversation with the child in front of you about their likes and dislikes, the parent deflects the conversation to a global level that the child truly can’t dispute.

I Value How Inclusion Increases Connection and Engagement, Yet if I’m Always Looking to the Other Person…

Let me give you an example. When my colleagues complain about a vendor, I agree with them and let them know that they have a valid point. However, then I usually say that everyone has bad days and we shouldn’t judge other people. While I truly believe this, I wonder if I’m shutting off valuable conversations by focusing on the vendor’s perspective instead of my team’s perspectives? I wonder if my value of inclusion actually prevents me from getting close to people? Is it really inclusion if I exclude the feelings of the people in front of me? It’s a fine line… including without deflecting. Living in other shoes without diminishing.

I do the same thing at home. When my daughter shares that someone is being a bully at school to someone else, I acknowledge her pain and encourage her to stand up for the other person. I also remind her that bullies are often in pain, so we need to remember that they may be having problems at home or at school that we don’t know about. Yet, by looking out to the bully, I’m diminishing her possible questions or pain. In essence, I’m deflecting my feelings and possibly her feelings by looking at the feelings of the bully. I saw this as a leadership strength I was teaching my daughter; now I’m not so sure.

As a leader, we have to hold ourselves accountable for our actions. So if I’m looking at the other person’s perspective too much, what am I overlooking as a leader? I’m overlooking accountability. I’m not holding the bully or the vendor accountable for their actions. I’m giving them one too many chances. And I’m not holding myself accountable for managing the necessary conversations in front of me. That’s not the type of leader I want to be.

So is DC uber smart? Yes. Can I hold my own in a room of super smart people talking about poverty policy? Maybe, maybe not. However, my job is to help people think differently about the paradoxes of leadership. And that I can do.

What about you? What have you learned about your leadership lately? Tell me in the comment section below, send me an email, or find me on Twitter. I’d love to hear about it; your lesson just may be a lesson for me too.

Originally published at on November 6, 2015.

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