Effective Leaders Hold the Tension

Civility: Claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs, and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process. ~Institute for Civility in Government

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Continuing to unpack the idea of leadership being defined as bold grace, I believe that genuine leadership is the ability to hold the tension.

One of the first activities I do with virtually any group I work with is to have them complete the DISC behavioral profile. There are many effective tools and assessments. I use the DISC because the concept is quick to explain and easy for people to understand, especially for those who are apprehensive about the idea of a behavioral profile in general.

The DISC is made up of two continuums. The first is essentially fast-paced/outgoing vs moderate-paced/cautious. The second is task-oriented vs people-oriented. Just the concept of a “continuum” means a line with two extremes and we all fall somewhere on that line. When I ask groups where on these two continuums are the most effective leaders, I typically get two responses. One is right in the middle of both continuums, or the other is exactly where that person happens to fall personally. Neither of which is correct.

The most effective leaders are those who are able to move and adapt to others. Which means they aren’t right in the middle of the continuum, but they are able to hold the tension between both extremes at the very same time. Brene’ Brown might say it’s the ability to be both tough and tender, brave and afraid, all at the same time.  

Hold the Tension

Being civil is another example of holding the tension. It’s the tension between claiming and caring for your own identity, needs, and beliefs, while at the very same time, not degrading someone else’s identity, needs, and beliefs. Unfortunately, we seem to have fewer and fewer examples of what that kind of civility [i.e., leadership] actually looks like.

Years ago I worked at a college and I would describe the college president at the time as a leader who could effectively hold the tension. Here’s just one example. I heard more than one person say, “If I ever have to be fired, I hope that I’m fired by President Manahan.” The reason people said this was because they would know exactly why they were being fired (it would be clear), and it would be delivered with respect and kindness (they wouldn’t feel degraded).

Holding the tension isn’t easy. That’s why I chose two somewhat dichotomous words—bold grace—to describe leadership. Going back to the DISC continuums. We quite likely have a preference for a specific spot on the continuum. So being able to move around, or even harder, to hold two different spots on a continuum at the same time, is likely to make us uncomfortable. And, it may feel exhausting.   

Being Intentional

But like any muscle, it can be developed with intentionality, practice, and time. That doesn’t mean the muscle won’t be sore or tired. It also doesn’t mean that once developed we can stop exercising that muscle. It’s a commitment to a different type of leading. Leading with bold grace.

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