Most people have misconceptions about leadership.
We tend to think that leaders are powerful, command-and-control type individuals who direct their own destiny and the destinies of every individual within their organization.
That's sort of true, but not completely true. Anyone who has actually served in a leading capacity knows that it's packed with responsibilities, limits and, ultimately, paradoxes. Here are three paradoxes of leadership that most people don't realize.
1. Letting go.
Great leaders are not successful by what they hold onto and control but rather by what they let go.
Every leader started as an expert in some area, whether it was sales, accounting, finance, R&D, personnel, training, legal or marketing. Leaders don't stay in that functional discipline.
While they obviously must play to their strengths, their professional advancement requires them to let go of past successes derived from what they knew and were comfortable with. They expand into other, unknown areas where they don't have a track record of success.
This counter-intuitive aspect of leadership is often the most difficult hurdle for-would-be CEOs. It requires coming to grips with a loosening of their grip.
2. Succeeding only when others succeed.
However, leaders who successfully break from their functional comfort zones soon realize that they can't be experts at everything. Ultimately, they need to be generalists. The demands of the job are simply too great to master everything.
As a result, they need to delegate the majority of their authority and power to trusted advisors who will act on their behalf.
The success of the leader is thereby defined by the decisions and actions of others. There is no problem when everything is going well organizationally, but this paradox creates tension when one or more areas of the organization under-performs.
The leader is tempted to wrest control from their designated agents and to "fix" the problems themselves but that solution is unsustainable and unworkable. Beyond the tension this particular paradox creates when things go wrong, the leader must also allow this paradox to create trust within their team.
3. Not providing answers.
Despite that trust, the top executive or person in charge has the final say on every issue facing the organization.
In theory, the business owner or CEO is expected to give the ultimate answers to the toughest questions. In reality, the best leaders don't always provide immediate answers. Instead, they ask probing questions.
The best leaders don't pretend to know everything and have all the answers. They concede it's impossible.
The only way the man or woman at the top can answer the toughest challenges facing the organization is by asking the toughest questions to their direct reports and entire enterprise, if necessary.
Instead of laying out edicts and answers, this paradox forces the leader to listen for insights beyond their own that might shape their ultimate decision.
While we all know that being a leader is rewarding, it's equally challenging as well, which is part of the reward and another leadership paradox in and of itself.