I recently finished reading a powerful book called ‘The Dichotomy of Leadership’ which is a follow up to the number one best selling book ‘Extreme Ownership’ by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. The authors who happen to be highly decorated Navy SEALS share their inspiring and at times scary tales on the battlefield, relating how those experiences blend with real world business and board room leadership challenges.
The book ‘The Dichotomy of Leadership’ struck a cord with me as I’ve struggled over the years with the balancing act which takes place in leadership. This balancing act, or dichotomy, is an ever present daily tug of war often between two extremes which are intrinsically linked yet incredibly challenging to consistently toe the line successfully.
Dichotomy itself is an interesting word rife with conflict. Dichotomy is defined as a contrast between two things that are, or are represented as being, opposed or entirely different. (ie – in leadership there is the push and pull of how friendly you become with your employees – too friendly and you lose their respect and or ability to make tough decisions, whereas not being friendly enough alienates you as a leader and keeps you from knowing your people)
As I’m reading this book one of the dichotomies the authors spoke about which is a consistent challenge for leaders is the contrast between leading and following. There’s a strong misconception in the world of leadership which aligns with the idea that if you’re in a leadership role you must always be leading. Decisions should be made by those in leadership, strategies engineered and dreamed up by those in leadership. This of course is an ego-centric mentality and quite frankly one which is incredibly out of date in todays’ business world. Yet this same idea, leaders must always be leading, permeates every facet of business in most companies we encounter on a daily basis.
My awakening as a result of this book came about as a result of my own shortcomings, and yes ego, as a leader. I too thought, “As a leader it’s up to me to decide the direction we’re taking and therefore the decisions we’re making.” Unfortunately this thought process is incredibly short sided.
The true nature of a good leader, as the book artfully describes, is a person who understands they can be in a leadership role and simultaneously lead while following. Sounds strange at first yet it’s possible, more importantly it’s highly impactful in an organization. The act of a leader willingly following sends a powerful message to the leaders team and company that they are out to do what is best and necessary for the greater good, not just themselves as the leader.
Here’s how following as a leader plays out.
A CEO of XYZ company has a tough decision to make when it comes to the direction of her company and the potential new markets they’re looking to develop. Traditional leadership has dictated the senior most person, often times the CEO, makes the decisions for the company. They may collect information from their subordinates on options or alternatives to consider however the senior most leader is the one to make the decision based on as their position and respective authority demands they be the one to blaze the path forward.
However, a leader who possesses the ability to balance the dichotomy of leading and following can recognize that while they are in a leadership seat it doesn’t mean they always must be leading. Sometimes following can produce more impactful results. It also means these leaders are able to recognize their ego and set it aside for the betterment of the company.
Going back to our CEO of XYZ company, as she’s considering where to take the company into the future she may get advice from an employee in the company which provides a great opportunity for growth and future success. Leaders who are successful in balancing leading and following would then lean on that employee to drive said initiative recognizing what’s important isn’t where the good idea comes from just that it is implemented successfully. Our leader, rather than leading, makes a conscious decision to follow and allows the employee to step up with their idea and help lead the company through it. They empower the other person while giving them an opportunity to shine. The leader, in this case our CEO, allows their employee to receive the credit for the idea while also helping them to get it up and running. Our CEO is now following and doing so because they know this decision is what is best for the business.
Key Take Away:
One of the most challenging things to balance as a leader is knowing when to lead versus when to following. Leaders who lead all the time lose sight of what is best for their company while also struggling with humility to give others the opportunity to shine. When we step aside and follow as a leader we encourage others to deploy their ideas while creating a vacuum for our employees and peers to step up, offer suggestions while increasing their likelihood to take additional ownership in their work. Leaders must recognize their ego drives many of their decisions and actions, one of the best decisions we can make is acknowledge our ego and set it aside to make room for others to take the wheel while we encourage them to do so.
If you struggle with the balancing act which comes with leadership, in particular the area of ‘leading versus following’ I highly suggest picking up the book ‘The Dichotomy of Leadership’ by Willink and Babin. The nuggets of knowledge, insight and real world practical examples these two authors share more than once will open your eyes to new and alternative approaches to successful leadership.
Article was written by guest writer Trisha Aure
Many of us live two lives. These two lives run on parallel tracks to one another yet few of us understand the dichotomy which exists by having a work life and a home life which operate separate from one another. We’ve been told growing up these lives need to be mutual exclusive of one another where we don’t bring our personal life and issues to work and vice versa.
This inevitably creates a variety of issues for us at both the home and office. The biggest issue it creates is our ability to grow as people which leads to our ability to grow as professionals.
Have you ever heard that personal growth is necessary for professional growth? It is, I just didn’t realize how critical this was till about 6 years ago. Some people believe separation needs to exist between work and home, or ‘work life balance’ as we commonly like to phrase it.
I’m not convinced ‘work life balance’ is possible, especially not if you are looking to create a long term successful career which your personal life benefits from.
This ladies and gentlemen is where my career ah-ha moment began – the idea of a ‘work life balance’ is garbage. We look at this phrase typically from the work side of things meaning we should work less in order to enjoy our personal lives more. Yet how often are we looking at this phrase from the personal side to understand how we impact our professional experience based on who we are outside of work. It goes both ways and to think a steady ‘balance’ between the two is possible is a dream in fantasy land.
I was in a new company and aggressively working on advancing my career. I had a lot of personal baggage I thought I was leaving at the door before I walked into the office. I had some deep heartache within my family dynamic that I never figured out how to live with, so I decided to act as though my life was perfect and I ignored my past. This act forced me to live two different lives and I will tell you, this was not only one of the hardest parts of my life but it was definitely the loneliest.
This is where I learned I wear my heart, and therefore emotions, on my sleeve. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because that is where my passion comes from, the heart. What I learned is when you are essentially living two different lives, it starts to take a toll on both your career and personal life. I had received some hard feedback and it was based on my attitude because I was aggressively trying to hold my personal struggles back. If anyone has ever been here before you know that holding feelings back only creates a blow up later down the road and mine happened at work.
Luckily, I had great people around me that cared about me professionally AND personally. I obtained a mentor and started receiving coaching on how to deal with my struggles that I quite frankly kept pushing down for over a decade. It was not an easy nor short process. Then again, anything worth having or doing right isn’t easy in the first place. I started working on building a healthy mind, body and soul, and 6 years later I’ve continued this quest not stopping once.
Growth is an everyday event and I have built some great routines that have helped me merge my two lives between home and work.
After 6 years of focus, dedication and some really hard work to improve myself I have lost 40 pounds (and kept it off), I’m in a leadership role with a company I’m part-owner in, I’m actively involved in the community and constantly improving my life on both sides. I honestly do not believe I would be where I’m at today if I continued to try and live two different lives.
To tie this all together, I believe that growth within your career begins at home. Have you ever heard, you can’t love someone until you love yourself? I believe that this internal love for yourself will only push you to cross any and all boundaries that you put up yourself. Stop putting up boundaries, and add some goals to your life. Once you start pushing forward, it’s crazy how that turns into unstoppable.
Key Take Away
You must take care of yourself in order for you to strive in other parts of your life. In regards to work and life, this is an AND, not an OR. We need to be confident in both in order to grow in both. I’m continuously reading leadership books and I can relate what I read in both my professional and personal life. We need to do away with catchy slogans like ‘work life balance’ because all they do is drive us to live a lifestyle which isn’t attainable.
If you are stagnant in your career, or struggling with something personally and you see it hindering other aspects in your life, find someone to talk to, find a mentor, find a coach to help you figure out how to get over that hump. I currently have a mentor which I found on micromentor.org. This is a free site and it matches you with people that are looking to grow their career in various areas. Growth is definitely uncomfortable and no one likes change, but building a strong support system will help guide us in achieving our goals and creating a well balanced successful life.
About the Author
Travis Smith is the founder and managing director of Square-1 Engineering, a life sciences consulting firm, providing end to end technical project services to companies which design, develop and or manufacture products in Southern California. He successfully served the life sciences marketplace in SoCal for over 15 years specializing in engineering services, consulting, project outsourcing and leadership development. In 2019 he was recognized as a ‘40 Under 40’ honoree by the Greater Irvine Chamber of Commerce as a top leader in Orange County, CA.