Full Engagement Leadership

August 25, 2010
In matters of style, swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock.~Thomas Jefferson

Leadership can feel like a juggling act. Competing priorities, competing team members, and competing needs call for our attention. Also, there is opposition between what our heartstrings sing out with what our head advises when we weigh what would be nice versus what would be prudent in a situation.

However, instead of seeing leadership as a juggling act, I am coming to believe that it is actually a daily call to integrate what might feel like irreconcilable opposites. I see leadership as turning apparent competition into collaborative partners, whether it is fighting priorities, or an internal battle between your head and your heart. Leadership is turning an “either/or” into a “both/and.”

For example, the world’s warrior traditions counsel us to fully engage both our heads (be smart, tactical and pay attention) and our hearts (be compassionate, honorable and see your opponent as a valuable teacher).  Great warriors, or leaders for that matter, know how to strategically assess the situation for their benefit while deeply valuing their enemies.

This balance translated into management theory terms, is described as seeing both the tasks and relationships as equally important.  Peter Northouse in Introduction to Leadership: Concepts and Practice explains that those who focus on tasks “initiate structure” and provide a “production orientation.” Simply, they like to get things done. Meanwhile, we must integrate an inclination for achievement with creating “consideration behavior” with which we build respect, camaraderie and trust.

After studying communication and conflict styles over the past 16 years, I have also noticed that our innate styles place a natural priority on either doing/action or being/connection. Those who gravitate to an intellectual or “air” based style in The Way of Conflict: Elemental Wisdom for Resolving Disputes and Transcending Differences, are solution-oriented for example. They feel best when they are accomplishing goals and marking actions off of “to do” lists. Meanwhile, those aligned with the emotion-based or “water” style will concern themselves first with relationship and how something will make others “feel.” I contend that the best leaders know how to draw equally for all four default communication styles.

So, full employment of both head and heart is critical, yet I find it often a paradoxical experience. For example, if I combine a “heart” with a “head” term what does it look like to be truly “honorably strategic”, “compassionately clever” or “discerningly kind?”

Notice when you begin to think about those word pairs, to which word do you gravitate? “Ahhh, honorably strategic,” you might think, “She’s asking us to remember to be honorable so we can win…that’s a good plan.” Or, to resolve the paradox, you might try, “By always being honorable, that is the best strategy…” Sorry, it’s not that easy. For example, focusing just on being honorable leaves you vulnerable.  As a wise martial artist once told me, “Don’t kid yourself, I have been hit while bowing.”

Instead, we want to be equally smart and tricky as embody full integrity. Warrior work, leadership or resolving the heart/head conflict can be tough stuff. Meanwhile, both are required and last month, I was reminded how groups will naturally create balance if some members are too task- or relationship-oriented.

To host 17 international students at Montana State University, it took twelve core program staff.   Some of us managed the details of food, housing and transportation, others taught and worked on group dynamics and still others administered the program. Everyone was busy, some working 6 to 7 days a week. When we would run into disagreements, it seemed to often center using my filters around if someone was overly focused on tasks or on relationships. Not only did we need to assure all the students were getting along and the staff was working well together, but also we had a lot to get done on time and of the highest quality. Using this head/heart paradigm, for me at least, was a helpful framework to describe why folks were going crosswise.

For example, one very competent young woman watched all our backs by dealing with a myriad of details throughout the month.  At the end of program, we were all appreciative of the quantity of work she accomplished; yet she was frustrated that she hadn’t gotten to form deep bonds with the international students and often felt like “the bad guy.”

Personally, I have been getting feedback in 2010 to show up as an even more authoritative teacher and to be more direct, even a bit harsher, in my communication. What is ironic, and paradoxically right, is that in trying to be kind or heart-centered, I sometimes achieve the opposite result.  When I don’t call others to hold their end of a business or teaching relationship by succinctly sharing my expectations, I can be perceived as disrespectful and even patronizing. Going for “relationship,” instead of a full balanced integration of head and heart, I actually can compromise both. It reminds me of  the song lyrics, “…cruel to be kind in the right measure.” Good “heady” advice that I am now taking to heart!

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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