The Path Forward


Have you ever noticed that you can’t move forward by digging your heels in?

It seems that conflict, gamesmanship, and demonizing those who see the world differently is on the rise in a host of environments. Maybe, instead of shouting louder or throwing more “facts” at our most challenging situations, those of us who would call ourselves leaders need to instead take the time to listen — with the intention of hearing, not just as a way to look for cracks in the armor where we can reinforce our point.

There is a host of research indicating that diverse teams strengthen an organization’s performance. Both inherent diversity (something you are born with) and acquired diversity (which comes from experience) can impact how one views a particular situation and issue. Do you as a leader not want as much information — as many different perspectives — as possible before making a decision? For example . . . imagine you are in charge of a building project. Do you not want to hear the opinion of the electrician, the plumber, the roofer, the person who will be coordinating the process, and perhaps even someone who has built a similar type of building? They may all give you a different perspective, with lots of legitimate rationale about why their opinion should take precedence. Those perspectives are all valuable as you work toward the best possible end goal.

There is no doubt that incorporating a diversity of perspectives in decision-making takes longer, can be uncomfortable and emotion-laden, and at times it may feel like there is no mutually agreeable path forward. That’s why the role of leaders is more important today than ever before. It takes a strong leader to push for the “and” rather than settling for the “or.” Roger Martin refers to such people as integrative thinkers — people who can hold two seemingly conflicting ideas in a constructive tension while working toward a new solution. It’s not settling for trade-offs, it’s leveraging our different perspectives to achieve a better outcome.

None of this is to say that you as a leader can’t have some non-negotiables. It simply means that no one person or perspective has a corner on all the good ideas, and it is a leader’s job to push through the hard stuff to find new insight/solutions/models on the other side of the complexity . . . to seek common ground, fill in gaps of understanding and commit to finding a new, better response.

There will always be plenty of people who will dig their heels in and tell you why they are right. It is a leader’s job to recognize that a diversity of perspectives offers rich opportunities for learning, insight, and the best chance at finding a path forward.

Leadership Plaid

A number of years ago I read a book where a political advisor, in speaking about a particular politician, commented that “His favorite color is plaid.” It was not meant as a compliment.

I chuckled when I first read that line, as was the author’s intent, but it also stuck in my mind (unlike much of the rest of the book . . .), and over the years I have come to believe that some of the most impactful leadership efforts succeed because they are able to incorporate a range of perspectives, like a finely-woven plaid. Let me use my paternal family tartan as an example of what I am talking about.

The ancient Duncan tartan is primarily composed of shades of blue and green, cool colors that overlap and blend easily. They are in close proximity on the color wheel, much like weaving together the input of team members who are all heading in the same direction, shooting for the same goal, but starting from slightly different perspectives (say, green for an operational viewpoint and blue using a product/program lens).

In addition to the blue and green background, woven throughout the design are thin but obvious lines of black and white. Those are the non-negotiables for which we won’t blend or bend . . . the values or mission from which we will not deviate. These are not the dominant colors of the pattern (we don’t feel the need to beat you over the head with them), but are clearly visible and a critical element in the overall design. And then there is the red. The firey spark from the other side of the color wheel that is none-the-less acknowledged and accommodated throughout the design. In fact, the plaid stands out more for having incorporated this “opposing” color, just as our own efforts become both more striking and appealing to a broader audience for the willingness to incorporate what is, ultimately, a very different but complementary color.

As leaders, we are so often encouraged to carve out a single position and stand strong. Pick one color, black or white or purple, and stick with that. Unfortunately, the situations which with we are faced today can rarely be best answered with a black or white response — at least not if we want to have a lasting impact on the ultimate goal. It takes a blending of perspectives and experiences, layers of color, and an acknowledgement of what each brings to the table, to weave together the design of a lasting solution.

Tartans have survived for centuries and are still going strong. Maybe to solve today’s toughest problems we should all consider weaving together a bit of leadership plaid.