There are a number of qualities that we associate with leadership. When we picture someone who is a leader we typically imagine a certain kind of person. Certainly, the so-called “Type-A” personality is high on the list — someone who might be called a “perfectionist” or “hard-charging.” We likely imagine someone who is supremely confident in their own abilities, makes decisions quickly and works fast; someone who occasionally seems arrogant in their self-confidence and who consistently succeeds in whatever they try to do.
Quite often these traits do fit the profile of leaders but not always.
Leadership isn’t always about those qualities. As with every rule, there are always exceptions. Sometimes good leadership is actually about going against the grain and demonstrating a different set of characteristics. The paradox of leadership is that sometimes leaders have to embrace qualities that don’t come naturally to them. In this article, we will explore the five paradoxes of leadership, and look at how they can make you a more effective leader.
Paradox #1: Success comes from the lessons of failure.
This is a lesson that doesn’t come easily to most leaders. Most people who achieve leadership roles are used to succeeding. Few people get ahead by failing at what they do. As writer and speaker Denis Waitley once said, “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat.”
This a truth many great leaders know. Good leaders know how to build on success. They also know how to learn from failure and come back stronger. They know that leadership includes learning from setbacks and using those lessons going forward.
Paradox #2: Humility is a key characteristic of great leaders.
George Patton. Howard Hughes. Steve Jobs. Great leaders are not exactly known for having a humble demeanor. Arrogance is often considered a prime personality trait of leaders. Most people assume that it comes with the territory. It does take a certain personality to be the person who makes important decisions that impact the lives of other people — decisions like when to perform surgery on a patient, when to lay off employees, when to order soldiers into battle, and when to settle a case or go to trial. The big decisions take someone with confidence to make them.
There is a flip side to that. Great leaders know how to learn from the people they work with. They know how to listen to others and recognize good ideas. That creates a positive environment that allows intellectual curiosity and learning to flourish. That, in turn, is the best way for your team to come up with the great ideas that will make your organization better. Sometimes a little humility goes a long way.
Paradox #3: Learn by doing.
See one. Do one. Teach one. That philosophy has long been a part of how medical students and new doctors learn to do medical procedures. It has also become a way that many professions teach students and new employees how to do things. It makes sense because it is a logical progression of learning from starting with seeing something you haven’t done before to being able to teach someone else.
A great leader encourages growth in their subordinates. Allowing them to take on increased responsibilities and learn new things that will make them better at what they do. Great leaders don’t micro-manage; they expect the people they lead to show initiative grow in their jobs. That is good for their organization and it shows their strength as a leader.
Paradox #4: Don’t rush your employee’s development:
Developing the talent of those you lead is an important part of leadership. That development is reflection of how good your leadership is. Great leaders take pride in seeing the employees that they mentored become more skilled and work their way up the ladder. Bad leaders are threatened by talented subordinates who are working their way up the ladder.
When a leader shows an interest in their employee’s development it can be a good thing because they are developing the future leaders of their organization. When there is a lack of those future leaders it can create pressure to develop those leaders. That sense of urgency might cause you to pressure your employees to develop faster. That is a bit like trying to force a rose to bloom before it is ready. You want your subordinates to be promoted when they are ready and not before. You don’t want them bouncing from assignment to assignment before they have a chance to make things work. Sometimes slowing things down allows the people you are leading time to grow into new jobs and new responsibilities.
Paradox #5: Leadership is about relationships.
Great leaders tend to be good with people. That doesn’t mean simple glad-handing. It means developing authentic relationships with a wide variety of people. That network of relationships is critical to success. No leader succeeds on their own. They succeed by leading talented people who can get things done. They succeed by having people outside their organizations that will help them. Great leaders know that no man (or woman) is an island.
Great leaders are not the ones who are egomaniacs. They are not the ones who want credit for everything. They are not the ones who try to micro-manage the people they lead. Great leaders are humble enough to learn from those they lead. They are smart enough to learn from their failures. They provide opportunities for their employees to learn and grow. They are patient and give people the chance to grow. The paradox of leadership is that sometime leaders allow those under them to lead.