Once or twice a year, a client and I manage to squeeze in a long-overdue lunch. We’re about the same age. We’re both women. We’ve both risen through the ranks and gained a certain amount of leadership credibility in our respective fields.
A conversation we had over lunch a few years ago haunted me for months, because I wasn’t ready with an articulate response to the career dilemma. “Susan,” as I will call her, is positioned to be tapped for a seat among the highest ranking leaders in her organization. She’s a shoo-in to sit among the President’s inner circle. She has more than enough skills and experience to succeed. She has the credibility and popular support to fast track her move. “The problem is,” Susan told me, “I don’t want the job. I’ve seen the compromises that the people at that level make to hold onto their position. I’m not interested in the politics. I can be much more effective by staying in my current role.”
Outside, I gazed at Susan with empathy. Inside, however, I wanted to shake her, and shout, “No! You have the potential to use your influence to reshape the reputation of the inner circle. You can’t just walk away and abdicate your responsibility to break down the barriers!” I kept my mouth shut. Paid the bill. Left Susan to swim in her career tension without advice.
Later, I shared this story with my colleague, leadership author and scholar, Dr. Tony Baron. Tony suggested that leadership success depends on the ability to embrace – not shun – the inherent tensions we feel as we move into higher levels of influence. “When you ignore the tension in your gut,” Tony said, “you compromise integrity. Successful leaders develop a sense of comfort in the tension. They don’t freeze when tension hits. They act. They don’t allow action anxiety to keep them from doing what they know is right, even at personal risk,” Tony added. Here are four ways he noted that successful leaders embrace tension:
1. Think Hamlet. The next time you feel tension about taking action, ask yourself if you’re overexaggerating the risk. “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles,” is the tension described by Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play of the same name. When we allow ourselves to indulge in negative fantasies, we give ourselves an iron clad excuse for inaction.
2. Reject the false comfort of agreement. We’ve all been in meetings where a decision is made that we feel is inherently wrong. Yet, we don’t speak up. Why? It’s because of another form of action anxiety when we fear acting contrary to the group. This behavior was addressed by management expert Jerry B. Harvey in his 1974 article “The Abilene Paradox: The Management of Agreement“. When we ignore what we know is sensible at the risk of being ostracized for speaking up, we allow our team to suffer from the false comfort of agreement. (Check out this clip of a video adaptation of The Abilene Paradox.)
3. Indecision as a decision. A large part of a leader’s role is to make tough calls. Sometimes those calls will pay off. Sometimes, they will fall short. Yet, if you have 100% of the information you need to make a decision, you’re not making a decision at all. You’re stating a foregone conclusion. When you make a choice, you put yourself at risk of being wrong. When you indefinitely delay decisions, however, you put your organization at risk of extinction.
Leadership comes with uncertainty. It’s a messy position that requires acts of bravery in the face of fear of failure, fear of rejection, and fear of risk. But leaders who push past their personal fears for the good of others are those who think of tension not as a threat, but as a tool.
Question: Is your instinct to freeze in the face of tension, or embrace it?
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