Originally Published January 5, 2016
“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.” — F Scott Fitzgerald
Powerful quote for leaders today, especially given the ever-growing requirements, expectations, and complicating factors that impact one’s ability to reach a desired outcome. It is so easy, and there are plenty of voices pushing us, to slide into either/or thinking. Pick a side . . . stake out a position . . . then resist any attempts to view things differently. Yet to be most effective — to be of first rate intelligence —a leader has to be able to contend with multiple, often seemingly conflicting realities.
In Good to Great, Jim Collins refers to this as the Stockdale Paradox — accepting the brutal facts of the current reality while maintaining an unwavering faith in the ability to prevail. In The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin has a similar concept he calls Integrative Thinking — facing the tension of opposing ideas and, rather than choosing one over the other, creating a new solution that has elements of the two original ideas but is superior to both.
Me, I simply call it pragmatic optimism. As leaders, we have a responsibility to deal with the reality before us, and, I think we have an equal responsibility to remain optimistic about our future. I’ll let you in on a little secret (which is really no secret at all to those who work with me) . . . I have very little patience for “oh poor me.” Sooner or later, we are all faced with situations that really stink/aren’t fair/aren’t our fault. Sure, it’s okay to have a quick little pity party, but then it’s time to move on. It baffles me why a leader would hang out in “ain’t it awful land” and wallow in the pain and suffering. Find a way to make things better and focus on that — not to ignore the current reality, but as a deliberate choice to move beyond it.
Or maybe you aren’t dealing with an “unfair” situation. Maybe you have two trusted advisors who have opposing proposals about the best way to respond to an opportunity. Are you an “all or nothing” leader who locks in on one option, or can you acknowledge the realistic strengths and weakness of each position while also having the confidence that those collective insights can result in a totally new, previously unconsidered, framework for success?
Pragmatic optimism. The willingness to look reality in the eye, and remain certain here is a path to get from here to your intended destination. Easy? No. Worth the effort? Well . . . let’s just say it sounds like first rate intelligence to me!