Organisational leaders live in two types of tension.
We could call the first tension ‘experiential tension’. It is the tension between idealism and realism – the dream and the reality. We have ‘upwards’ idealism – how we want things to be – versus ‘outwards’ realism – how things currently are.
Without idealism, we will cap our growth. Without realism, we will lack grounding. We need both, to remain anchored whilst never settling, and to be inspired without being detached.
The tussle arises because most of us would say that all we hope for and all we experience are still different. We want more.
We could call the second tension ‘temporal tension’. We have the reality of history – what has gone before us – versus the hope of the future – what we long to see in our tomorrow.
Without valuing our history, we lose sight of what has shaped us. Without looking forward, we will live with a view that our best days are behind us. We need both, to remember our journey whilst moving forwards, and to be optimistic without losing lessons of the past.
How we navigate these two tensions forms the context for all our perspectives, including those connected to our leadership. Sometimes we are uncomfortable with tension, and so seek to remove it by eliminating or minimizing the pain points on one side of the equation. Whilst in the short-term, our discomfort will have been eased, removing one side that brings the tension will eliminate a source of power and perspective that will be significant in our actions, and therefore our growth.
If we are uncomfortable with tension and eliminate one aspect of vertical or horizontal tension, we will gravitate towards one of four harmful mindsets.
1. Embracing Tension protects us from Traditionalism
Signs that we’ve embraced traditionalism include a reticence to consider new ideas, processes or methods that seem to be ritualized, a lack of change despite clear data pointing out the need, jealousy or continual comparison to competitors or rivals and their methods, being structure-centered as an organisation, and team members that follow rules and guidelines but don’t know why they are done that way.
2. Embracing Tension protects us from Detachment
Signs that we’ve embraced detachment include being more vision-focused than action-focused, leading from a sense of passion rather than a sense of mission, not collecting, dismissing or ignoring data that should inform significant leadership decisions, a culture of ineffective management, frequent change or organisational direction and/or priority, and decisions made in faith without any analysis or assessment beforehand.
3. Embracing Tension protects us from tolerating Coping Strategies
Signs that we are tolerating coping strategies include turning a blind eye to an area or individual we know is underperforming, allowing destructive behaviour or attitudes to continue unchecked, avoiding conflict or challenge, not making the one tough decision everyone on the team knows needs to be made, and rationalising or justifying repeated incidents or failures without making the necessary but painful changes.
4. Embracing Tension protects us from Drivenness
Signs that we’ve embraced drivenness include a reluctance to review the past and learn from it, being more interested in moving forward into the vision than creating culture, repeated poor planning, an action-orientated mentality that will ‘work things out as we go’, unhealthily quick decision-making, frustration with the team, a reluctance to listen to voices of caution, and fatigued and disappointed team members.
Ultimately, if we eliminate tension then it will lead us to lack balance. If we are off-balance, we will gravitate towards one of four errors, that will impact our leadership style and therefore the organisation we led within.
There is power in being both idealistic and realistic, despite the challenges that present. Likewise, there is power in looking back and looking forward, even if that seems like a contradiction. Wise leaders embrace all perspectives, even when unclear, confusing or painful, and learn to live with the tension created because within it, we have access to all there is that will help us learn, grow and lead well.