Black White Thinking

Absolutist-Thinking and Leadership: A Slippery Slope

By robindf
November 19, 2015

About a year ago I read a post on LinkedIn about Leadership that included a list of what makes a good leader. The author was a CEO of a big company. The list struck me as so black and white that at first I thought it was a joke then I realized that it was for real. This was an unsettling thought namely because, while black white thinking can be a sign of a leader, it’s most often associated with a leadership style the world needs less of. Dictators and zealots.

To be clear, this post isn’t an attack of the author, but rather a criticism of a way of thinking that has no room for mistakes, failure, imperfection, and most importantly, the realm of human experience that is constantly in flux, the part of us that is always and can always learn. Our humanity.

So I wrote a list to counter the author’s, focused on what I’d learned in all my jobs and in life up to this point as well as what I’ve observed indirectly from reading about the lives Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcom X, and Mother Theresa to name a few. Here is the list; the original points are in bold, followed by mine in italics.

  • They Never Fail To Lead
  • Always learn how to lead better
  • They Are Never Lukewarm
  • Follow an inner conscience over strong or “lukewarm” passions
  • They Never Tone Down Their Vision
  • Aim for bold visions that are good for all, before grandiose plans that the majority of followers realized in hindsight, were more about power
  • They Never Break Commitments
  • Obey conscience over the risk of disappointing others and tarnished reputation
  • They Never Worry About The Headlines
  • May worry about headlines, but know how to refocus attention on what matters and on what they do have power to influence
  • They Never Say Never
  • Recognize the danger and risk in absolutism (thought, words, deeds), in all its forms, subtle and explicit
  • They Never Need A Pat On The Back
  • Don’t rely on positive validation to persevere, but accept their humanity and as such are able to ask for support when needed without feeling the lesser for it
  • They Are Never Pessimistic
  • Know the importance of seeing life as it is rather than as “negative” or “positive”. A version of this could be Gandhi’s “Pragmatic Idealism”
  • They Never Procrastinate
  • Have different styles of how they are in action (slow pace, fast pace, etc), depending on their background and culture. But all good leaders know the wisdom of right timing
  • They Never Sit In Judgment
  • Have most probably held a grudge or two for a minute or more, but they have mastered the art of learning from it sooner than later
  • They Are Never Narrow Thinkers
  • Have courage to do what’s needed and what’s right despite its appearance or it being “big” or small
  • They Never Avoid Challenges
  • Do not shy away from confrontation, but they know that there are times when confrontation is NOT the best approach
  • They Never Worry About Appearing Vulnerable
  • Know that real vulnerability means feeling at least a bit uncomfortable, otherwise its a look alike
  • They Never Stop Asking Questions
  • Always challenge preconceived ideas, starting with their own
  • They Never Accept Defeat
  • Do not always know if there is a way to a solution, but they know that they have the strength of conviction and faith to endeavor

Reflecting on my actual experience with each of the author’s leadership principles, the words flowed easily. Not at all because I’d mastered them – (any of them!) – but because I’d thought about them, tried to live them, even if for moments at a time and remembered the experience of experimenting them, or rather, my version of them. In thinking about each principle in this way, I had to be honest. Once I did this, ironically, the word “never,” no longer applied. It was not an apt descriptor of my lived experience of these principles. Not because they were wrong, but because they didn’t accommodate the actual flesh and blood experience of living, or trying to live them, only an abstraction of those experiences and very limited ones at that.

There may be leaders for whom, the never-statements are accurate, but even so, that idea is a bit scary. I’ll take an imperfect leader trying to be better over a leader who is perfect by virtue of “never” doing…(fill in the blank), any day.

Aside from writers who convey a leader as a 2-dimensional action figure, I think one of the obstacles making it difficult to cultivate the leader within is in the very way that we think and talk about them. Black/white thinking and arguements and posts, stemming from it – no matter what the topic – do little to aid in the living of that topic. Because its devoid of lived experience, in other words, it’s from the head, of the head. And with a subject such as leadership, this is unfortunate, verging on reckless because the world could sure use more truly great leaders. Ones who speak from the their heart and head to ours.

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