Embracing Essential Tensions
Sometimes, tensions are a good thing to get rid of. Sometimes, getting rid of tensions can be dangerous. But the ones we keep need to be managed well if we’re to get the benefits that only healthy tensions can bring.
In his book, Building the Bridge As You Walk On It: A Guide for Leading Change, author Robert E. Quinn defines an unusual, but insightful model of leadership. To Quinn, leadership is a temporary psychological condition that we move in and out of. In our “Normal State”, we tend toward maintaining our own comfort. Whenever we move into the “Fundamental State of Leadership”, we embrace different mindsets that equip us to lead well.
The Fundamental State of Leadership
Figure 1 describes the four characteristics of this leadership mindset and illustrates the tensions that exist between them.
As good leaders we manage the tension between being Other-Focused, putting the needs of others ahead of our own, and being Purpose-Centered, where we are continually clarifying our expectations in an unwavering pursuit of our mission. Leaders dare not sacrifice our focus on helping those we lead succeed in an attempt to achieve our mission. But neither can we afford to sacrifice staying on mission to help those we lead succeed.
On one side of the other tension in this model is being Internally Directed. That involves continually attending to our own values and behaviors to assure there is no hypocrisy. We gain confidence from our integrity. That mindset is in tension with being Externally Open, valuing and adapting to feedback from others and going outside our comfort zone to reach higher levels of success.
If you ignore either side of these tensions, you compromise your team’s ability to reach their full potential. That, by definition, compromises your own success as a leader.
We All Need Tensions
To strengthen our physical muscles we lift weights and do other exercises that apply tension to those muscles. Likewise, our mental and emotional muscles need certain tensions to stay in shape. When we embrace one side of a tension and ignore the other, we lose the benefits of the side we dropped while the negative aspects of the one we kept tend to grow unchecked.
Letting Go of the Right Stress
I hope you recognize that these tensions are a normal, healthy part of leadership. That allows you to let go of the stress that comes from thinking you’re not doing a good job because you can’t resolve them. Making a choice that favors one side of the tension doesn’t mean you’ve abandoned the other. If you’re making every choice to favor the same side, that is a problem. Use your emotional intelligence to monitor how your team is doing and let that guide you as you decide which side of the tension to favor in the current decision.
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