Great Leaders Manage Contradiction: 4 Lessons

It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote that “the true test of a great mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time.”  The same applies in the executive context – the ability to manage the inevitable human contradictions and imperfection in a manner that is compassionate and enlightening for others.

The recent tragedy of sexual victimization at Penn State University, including Joe Paterno’s downfall and death, has been argued incessantly, as though the contradiction could be resolved.  Joe Paterno was a dominating person who enabled a sexual predator for over a decade.  Joe Paterno was an excellent coach, helped the university grow, and provided a great benefit to other young men who went on to successful careers, by their own account.  Before he died he was punished as his fellow enablers will be, but how does one reconcile this with his accomplishments and positive impact on many young men?  Not easily.

An effective leader faces the same dichotomies:  “he’s a great sales person but he creates chaos,” “she’s not good with her team but her work quality is impeccable,” or “he’s never on time but his ideas are amazing.” Here are some related lessons learned by many executives over the past 30 years:

  • Bring the issue to the surface for consideration as soon as possible.  The light of day can often open the discussion for everyone and nurture a mood of honesty and intolerance for destructive behavior.  If this had happened at Penn State the abuse could have been stopped by that action alone.
  • Be honest and comprehensive about your appraisal of the impact of the contradiction.  Yes, you could lose a great sales person and yes, you might also have a more focused and productive effort overall.  At Penn State, further abuse could have been prevented, they would have been ultimately applauded for doing the right thing, Joe Pa might have still set the record for victories, and his statue would still be there today.
  • Make a commitment to action and follow through in a transparent manner.  Co-workers often are unsure about the follow-through of leaders, especially with “high producers,” who can be destructive for a team. Actions always have a greater impact than words.
  • When you act in a fair manner it encourages a broader range of positive behavior in the organization.  If Penn State had acted in a decisive manner over a decade ago it might today be seen as a great leader in higher education and the protection of children, and at least $60 million better off.

Leaders make a mistake when they try to resolve contradictions like a simple problem of addition and subtraction.  Begin by looking honestly and helping others to do the same first. It will be a richer experience than the judgment.