The contrasts of leadership

Leadership is all about contrasts. The art of leadership is about when to be in the middle, when to be at either end of the scale, and when to be both. Often, the best answer is “both, but in a specific way”. Making good use of contrasts is an art, not a science. It can be learned, as art can.

As an aspiring leader or a new CEO, you face this situation when you ask for advice. If you ask more than one person, as you should, you get conflicting advice. One will say “trust your instincts” and the other “rely on data”. One will say “be firm” and the other “look for compromise”. The key to successful leadership is to realize that this is not a conflict; it is a contrast. There are two contrasting viewpoints. Both have their value, and both are correct in some frame of reference. Many times, the best solution is to employ the two viewpoints together in contrast.

It’s up to you to manage the contrast. Perhaps you will combine the two pieces of advice into one: “I will study all the data there is, and if I am still unsure, I will rely only on instincts.” Other times you will realize that some advice is meant for you to consider, other advice is meant to provoke your own thinking and make you do the opposite. When you see the contrasts and start using them to the advantage of the business, your leadership will improve.

How you go about contrasts will define you as a leader. No matter how insightful the advice you receive, as a leader you are the only one who can know how to manage the contrasts of your situation. One can always argue both for and against any given proposal. They are not contradictions; they are contrasts. It’s not either or, it’s both in the right circumstances, the right proportions and right way.

Leadership is an art form. “An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Problems that previously seemed unsolvable or situations where you felt you had to take just one side become possible when you see them as contrasts.

When you communicate, you can be direct and respectful at the very same time. Speak up, but don’t talk too much. As for being a cold or a warm leader, you can treat issues coldly and people warmly. Move fast, but don’t rush irrationally. Your impatience: use it on actions and progress. But as for results, be patient. You can have great attention to detail without resorting to micro management. If you have strict rules, set a specific rule that allows for occasional exceptions. Be rational, and remember it is rational to listen to your instincts. Be frugal in your every-day business, but invest with boldness when a true opportunity appears. Look for the useful contrast.

You can let your team make decisions without letting go of your authority. You can be fair to everyone while treating everyone individually. You can treat bad news as good news although in general you are focused on opportunities, not problems. You can run meetings with military discipline and other meetings without any discipline.

Those new to leadership tend to perceive contrasts as conflicts or as forks in the road. We feel we have to be fully on one side, or fully on the other. But a picture or a company that goes all the way to one side will be too black or too white. As we mature as leaders, we see things with multiple colors that play together. We can adjust contrast and allow different colors and viewpoints. A picture or company without contrast will be bland. Average works poorly for pictures and companies, and so does full tilt to either side. Contrast is a recipe for success.

“You’ll get a lot of contradictory advice, and often neither side is wrong.” – Matt Mullenweg, the creator of WordPress and Automattic


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