Think about the last time you were trying to resolve an emotionally-laden issue within your family, your business team, or perhaps your church or service organization. What and how did you communicate? My wife has often said one of my greatest strengths is that I am that person who is not afraid to address the “elephants in the room,” even if it means confrontation. And indeed I will do so, if I believe the process will help improve the situation and hopefully result in stronger relationships in the end. I try to approach these situations carefully, reflectively, and strategically, since they inevitably affect people’s hearts even though they may require a timely resolution.
How do you as a leader approach a situation where a timely decision must be made which will result in one or more of the stakeholders being less than satisfied with the decision? The way a leader handles this situation can demonstrate his or her character and effectiveness. Two concepts have helped me face this conundrum: Servant leadership and paradoxical leadership.
In 1970, Robert Greenleaf coined the term “servant leadership.” As The Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership states, “a servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong…The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.” Clearly, the concept of servant leadership presents a fundamental, yet minimum, standard for leadership behavior. Effective leaders have a servant heart, listen to those being led and served, and make decisions that are in the best interests of others.
However, as noted above, leaders occasionally must address a situation in which any decision the leader makes may advance the interests of one or more stakeholders while simultaneously adversely affecting the interests of another stakeholder. In other words, a leader may face conflict even if that leader makes a decision with a servant heart that seeks to benefit those affected. Then what?
Paradoxical leadership, a concept used by Harrison Assessments, provides critical insight. The most successful leaders usually have a balance of seemingly paradoxical strengths. In fact, the Harrison Assessment identifies and measures twelve paradoxical pairs of behaviors, which relate to interpersonal core values, achievement core values, and leadership core values. Paradoxical leadership involves using a balance of two seemingly opposite traits. For example, if a leader is always frank, that leader may be perceived as being blunt. On the other hand, if a leader is always diplomatic, that leader may be perceived as evasive. If the leader is neither frank nor diplomatic, that leader is just avoiding communication! Successful leaders demonstrate a balance of frankness and diplomacy, something the Harrison Assessment calls forthright diplomacy, one of its four interpersonal core leadership values.
Thus, effective leaders demonstrate a balance of seemingly opposite traits. Only when a leader demonstrates forthright diplomacy, for example, can that leader communicate effectively with the various stakeholders affected by a decision. If a leader, whether an executive or a board, is seeking to make a real difference for those he or she leads and serves., he/she occasionally must make a decision that adversely affects a stakeholder, A leader simply cannot make everyone happy if he or she wants to make an intentional positive difference in the lives of those served. But by exercising forthright diplomacy with the heart of a servant that motivates one to listen first, that leader will clearly, yet tactfully communicate a thoughtful decision made to benefit those served by that leader.
If your board has a passion to govern with a heart of servant leadership while ensuring accountability that results are achieved in an ethical and prudent manner, please contact us at The Governance Coach. We specialize in coaching boards in implementing the Policy Governance® system, which helps boards become more strategic, future-focused, and results-oriented while being more accountable to those on whose behalf it governs.