We don’t need leaders who merely take black and white decisions; neither do we need leaders who explore the grey areas in-between. Rather, we need leaders who are able to deal with two polar opposites or two contradictory elements at the same time, and to do this efficiently and without feeling overwhelmed by the dilemma. On the one hand, leaders need to focus on the short term- on reducing risks and on putting in place reliable systems. On the other hand, they mustn’t lose sight of the long term, and they need to create the right conditions for people to innovate and for different alternatives to be explored. These two apparent contradictions need to be addressed at the same time; it is equally dangerous to operate only in the short term or to be thinking exclusively about the future. However, in such complex times as the present, we run the risk of being fenced in by one side of reality, and completely forgetting the other, which gives it balance. Moreover, if we put the emphasis purely on reducing costs and don’t build for the future, we will stifle all the optimism and motivation of the people who work with us.
Let’s make no bones about it: dealing with polar opposites is not easy. None of us likes contradictions, and we invent all sorts of reasons to convince ourselves that we are on the right track, and to keep on doing what we like doing, or to avoid what we find unpleasant. In1957 Festinger coined the phrase “cognitive dissonance” to describe this process; cognitive dissonance occurs when we are faced with two ideas that are diametrically opposed, for example “Smoking is bad for me” and “I like smoking”. To avoid this contradiction, we try to justify our behaviour with any argument that comes to mind, and there are plenty; “it’s not scientifically proven that smoking causes lung cancer”, to name but one. Now, leaders can also fall into this trap. They may blot out all other considerations with blanket statements such as “the main thing now is to reduce costs”. However, in reality, they need to be thinking about both sides of the equation, and to avoid spurious self-justifications which undermine both themselves and the people who work with them.
We urgently need new leadership skills that are based on the ability to adapt, to take on a broader outlook and to get in synch with reality through a process of trial and error. We need to develop greater inquisitiveness about the effects of our decisions, and not just to continually verify if we were right or wrong. In the final analysis, successfully dealing with polar opposites is a question of accepting our own contradictions and of appreciating that, in life in general and in the world of work, they are not problems to be solved, but mysteries to be explored beyond the framework of our prior beliefs. As Scott Fitzgerald put it, “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time”; it is quite possible that it is precisely this type of intelligence which is most needed at the present time.
First published in Spanish in Expansión, 30 November 2012