Effective leaders are comfortable with paradox and ambiguity. This has been a favorite theme of mine since I began studying and writing about leadership over twenty years ago.
Recently our son, Chris, was home from university to celebrate his birthday. During the weekend, he and I had a conversation about how much more complex, nuanced, and interesting the world has become for him than when he was a teenager. During his teenage years the world, and most of the people he encountered in it, could be easily divided into right and wrong, stupid and smart, good and bad, cool and not cool, and so on. With his interest in politics we had many ideological debates about the social and political issues of the day. He had strong beliefs and clear answers for just about every situation. I often argued both sides of an issue – even the side I didn’t believe in – to try to help him understand that it wasn’t that black and white. Since he was studying politics in high school and “political science” was his first year major in university, he failed to see the humor in me calling “political science” an oxymoron. By his third year, he’s had to write papers arguing both sides of issues or even presenting the opposite side of an issue to his own belief. In doing so he found himself becoming more tolerant and understanding of many social and political issues today. In other words, he was growing up.
There are clearly times when we need to take a stand and draw a firm line between what we see as right and wrong or moral and immoral. Continually hiding behind ambiguity and waffling on our position is a sign of weakness and a real lack of leadership. But I have also long believed that the capacity to live in the gray zone between black and white is a sign of maturity. A great deal of destruction and disaster in organizations, relationships, families, religions, and throughout societies comes from the intolerance and inflexibility of immature “leaders” who believe there are clear right and wrong answers to just about every situation. Their harsh and judgmental position usually comes from a base of fear. Mature leaders can live with not having clear answers or letting situations unfold.
They seek to understand with a more accepting position that comes from a base of love.