The Paradox of Leadership
21 August, 2017
Becoming a leader is more than just a role change or a step up the chain. It involves a complete change of mindset: no longer are you out on your own, looking to prove yourself using your own skills and capacities. You are now also leading a team and several processes, and you have responsibility for some key stakeholder relationships. In their article, “Psychological Perspectives on Leadership”, Jennifer Chatman and Jessica Kennedy call this “the paradox of leadership”'. While as a leader you are the masthead, representative, and one with the greater authority, you are also at the mercy, in some respects, of the performance of your team, which engenders a simultaneous position of dependence.
This is one of the most important learning curves of any new leader. Not noticing this change, or resisting it, risks alienating or neglecting your team, and initiates a complex struggle in your new role. Some leaders continue to wrestle with this paradox, and this is where many common issues that materialise in leadership come from.
Consider this: a new leader is constantly frustrated with their team. "Why can't they just learn to do things the way I want them to? Why is it so difficult?". The team has been told that they must fit into their boss' style of working, and it is having negative effects not only on their morale and motivation, but also on the quality and expedience of the work product. This leader has not realised that they must relate to their team: that the paradoxical position that they have as a team leader means that they must be firm, and also responsive to how their team best works. Chatman and Kennedy explain that “those who more accurately perceive their own status, and especially those who avoid erring on the side of overestimating it, are more likely to be influential”.
The question remains: why do so many leaders fail to realise this? Or even: why do so many leaders actively resist this perspective?
First and foremost, it is related to our culture. Leaders are “the boss”: they make the decisions, they have the power, and everyone should fit into their vision and choices. This conventional thinking means that leaders are more likely to justify power plays, or view any changes they make to their own style as weaknesses or compromises to their team.
Leadership - like promotion - is often perceived as a reward for merit and time served. One can understand the sense that the leader's preferences should trump those of their team, and that team members' perceived resistance to this may be understood as a slight, lack of respect, or otherwise.
Secondly, it may be related to personality. Some people find it easier to work independently with the freedom to manage things by their vision alone. In terms of MBTI personality types, this correlates more with INTP or ISTP types, or in terms of the Enneagram, with Enneagram 5 types. It is also more associated with individuals who display personality traits like “logical”, “competitive”, and “tough”.
Regardless of the drivers behind privileging the leader's natural style over that of their team, better team cohesion, performance, and engagement comes from understanding your team's needs. Identify what inspires your team to their best performance, and factor this into your leadership strategy.
How Does Your Interviewer Like It?
Know who you'll be interacting with and how it matters.