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Leadership and the Paradox of Change

Change requires doing things differently while more deeply understanding who you genuinely are. Understanding change is a hallmark of great leadership. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Intelligent leaders must do […]

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Change requires doing things differently while more deeply understanding who you genuinely are. Understanding change is a hallmark of great leadership.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Intelligent leaders must do this routinely.

Progress as a leader is not possible without openness to new ideas.

Paradoxes are concepts that seem self-contradictory and logical at the same time, and the concept of change offers us a prime example of a paradox. Put simply, Gestalt’s Theory of Change says that people change by becoming more fully themselves, not be trying to become something which they fundamentally are not. People change when they accept themselves to be what they currently are rather than by struggling to be what they want to become. 

It’s only when you know yourself with honesty, as you are, that you can conceive of changes you want to make and can envision what a changed you would be like. You have to know where you are now before you can plot out the map for getting where you want to go. 

Change Requires First Embracing Who We Genuinely Are

Think about it. What if someone, though uncoordinated and inexperienced, wanted to become good at bowling? Is their first step to go out and buy the shoes, a ball, and all the other equipment a good bowler has? No. Nor is it necessarily finding someone to teach them or watching YouTube video tutorials. The real first step to becoming a good bowler is allowing themselves to be what they are right now: a terrible bowler. 

In my new book The Intelligent Leader, I discuss the fact that without true change, leadership development is superficial and fleeting. But I also go into great depth about the importance of knowing yourself, particularly “yourself” as it relates to the seven dimensions of Intelligent Leadership. I emphasize people’s inner core – which is made up of your most deeply held values and beliefs as well as your character. 

Intelligent Leadership starts from within, and if you don’t understand and acknowledge what’s within, how can you make the changes necessary to bridge gaps between the leader you are now and the leader you strive to be?

Ways That We Avoid Change

We humans can be remarkably adept at avoiding even the consideration of change.

Human beings use many psychological tricks to avoid changing. Change is hard, and it disrupts our comfort, however imperfect that “comfort” might be. The ways in which we avoid change are as individual as we are, but some of the most common (and frankly, creative) ways people avoid change include:

  • Naively swallowing experiences whole, consequences be damned
  • Projecting or anticipating others’ behavior based on our own fears
  • Doing to ourselves things that we wish others would do, like swallowing our own anger
  • Shifting attention or otherwise deflecting in the face of change, such as by using sarcasm
  • Going along to get along to avoid having to take a stand
  • Trying to numb ourselves as a way to avoid dealing with difficult issues

In other words, sometimes we’re willing to engage in serious mental gymnastics to avoid change, and it’s easy to see how that’s neither healthy nor productive. 

What Happens When We Choose Change?

But what happens when we dispense with the mental gymnastics, accept who we are, and deliberately choose to engage in change? We make progress in becoming the leader we want to be. This requires that we see change as a teacher: even if things don’t work out, we will have learned something valuable. 

Choosing change doesn’t mean we take on the entirety of change all at once. Do you play a musical instrument? If so, what do you do when you want to learn a new piece of music? Maybe you give it an initial sight-read, but then you start on the real work. Maybe you break it down and learn a few measures at a time. Or maybe you go through it and see what types of chord progressions you will be using. Maybe you see a particularly challenging section and set aside time to double down practicing it. Each small change adds up to something wonderful: the assimilation of a new artistic work into your repertoire. 

Change requires directed effort, but you don’t have to tackle it all at once. 

And when you ultimately accomplish the change, you’ve actually accomplished two things: you have improved who you are while simultaneously becoming more fully yourself. Paradox can be beautiful!

The First Step Forward Is Learning to Envision Change 

In my leadership coaching work, I regularly use a process for manifesting change that consistently gets good results. I go into more detail in The Intelligent Leader, but the steps of the process are basically as follows:

  1. Visualize the change and what it looks like to you.
  2. Articulate your vision of change in as much detail as you can summon.
  3. Identify the gaps between present you and changed you, paying particular attention to the gaps that feel uncomfortable or intimidating. These are likely to be the areas that will require the most attention as you move forward.
  4. List the gaps you identified and add notes about why you included them as well as your emotional responses to them.
  5. Reiterate your commitment to change.
  6. Create an action plan, including at least one step to address each gap you identified.

I have found that these steps work for a lot of people, but they may not work perfectly for you. The important thing is that you create an approach to change and put it into action. 

Change is one paradox of Intelligent Leadership, but it is not the only one. Outstanding leaders must be courageous while being compassionate. They must be decisive and open to new information. They must be strong and vulnerable. How you strike these crucial balances will depend on your inner core characteristics and your outer core capacities.

Change doesn’t mean constantly glomming onto the latest trend or technology. But it does mean recognizing that the world and its people (including you) are never static. Becoming an Intelligent Leader requires apocalyptic change, in the sense that an apocalypse represents uncovering, revealing, and disclosing. What you uncover during change is more of your authentic self, and the result is more effective leadership, both at work and in life. 

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This article is an adapted excerpt from my new book, The Intelligent Leader: Unlocking the 7 Secrets to Leading Others and Leaving Your Legacy

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