Saturday, July 21, 2012

The leadership paradox

“To be a person means to have learned the secret and paradoxical art: to go out, and yet remain within; to exert power yet exercise restraint; to transcend, and yet remain oneself; to be in movement, yet to be in total repose”

This quotation (from The Way of Paradox: Spiritual Life as Taught by Meister Eckhart) gets to the heart of a fundamental conundrum of leadership. By asking us to make an integration of seemingly contradictory elements, it highlights a juggling act that leaders must learn if they are to be truly effective. 

It reminds me to pause in the midst of action, ‘touch base’ as well as encourage people I work with to do the same. This is about doing my best to move beyond kneejerk reactions; see the bigger picture and be responsive to specifics of the moment. It isn’t a soft option; when the pressure is on and the clock is ticking I find it fiercely difficult, requiring rigour, discrimination, humility and commitment.

A recurring theme for myself and my clients is feeling we have to do more, faster. Like Alice in Wonderland we are running as fast as we can to stay in the same place. I know from my own experience that when everything around is speedy it takes courage to stop and reflect, even for a moment.

Let’s face it speed is exuberant, eager to embrace change and get things done. It’s high-powered, confident and heroic – just ask Jeremy Clarkson! Speed = success; it drives economic growth, stays ahead of the game and gives an exhilarating buzz. But too often speed= superficial; with its short term view, blinkered focus on the next quarter and reckless ‘JFDI’ mindset. Speed plays a part in financial meltdown, social injustice and environmental devastation. In my heart I know that those well meaning but unhelpful interventions and decisions I am most ashamed of have often been made speedily.

A culture of speed plays to our inadequacy; sometimes it seems whatever I do it’s never enough. This can push me into over compensating; living falsely outside of myself, just skimming the surface. I’ve seen this result in burnout and an erosion of integrity that leads to abuses of power, hubris and career derailment. This quotation inspires me to do my best to live and lead not just from the surface; to see beyond roles, image and status and find a deeper, more ‘soulful’ place to stand as I work in the world.

For me, these practical, profound and provocative words represent a call to embrace contradiction; to experiment with reflective risk taking, to remain calm and connected in the midst of action, show restraint while being decisive and allow paradox to shape my notion of what it means to be a leader. I may never fully achieve all this but the journey should be interesting! 

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