How Leaders Can Invest in the Power of Differences

In a world in which we expect the neighborhood ice cream shop to offer up at least 31 flavors, why do we insist on “fixing” people so their point of view matches one flavor—ours?

Sometimes it’s maddening to be in a conversation with a fiercely-opinionated person whose thoughts are 180 degrees from mine. As we talk, I keep thinking about how narrow-minded the person is and how I could help them see the light if they’d only let me.

It took me a while to realize that I was appearing to them just as close-minded as they were coming across to me. With both of us stuck in our respective “I’m-going-to-fix-them” mindsets, we became tribal and lost sight of the bigger picture, our compassion, and maybe even our character.

That’s not a very strong leadership position to be in.

A matter of give and take

If we’re going to lead others, we must first lead ourselves, which means that we accept differences and the reality that we can’t “fix” someone or make them see things our way.

At best, we can help, guide, or inspire them. Perhaps, if we’re open to it, they might even help, guide, or inspire us.

The ideal leadership position is achieved when we display respect and empathy while embracing differences and encouraging those around us to open their minds and hearts without forcing agreement.

Leadership…is an act of love in the face of an uncertain world. ~Umair Haque, author

Cars, processes, and machines are things we can fix. Not so with people. People who want to change, change themselves. And, if they don’t want to change their point of view, that doesn’t make them wrong.

This was a wicked hard lesson for me to learn. One that involved lots of time, patience, introspection, some tears, support from others, and generous servings of chocolate to get a handle on.

5 questions to ask yourself

Answering five questions helped me make room for differences. Differences that are sometimes dramatic and stand in stark contrast to my preferences. Perhaps these questions might help you find your balance, too.

Is my need for control the problem?

Do I see those who aren’t thinking or doing things “my way” as a challenge to my authority? Have I considered that my way may not be the only way? Is there room to allow those around me to follow their way as long as they produce the results I’m responsible for delivering? Can I accept that what’s right for others may be different than what’s right for me, but that difference doesn’t make their way wrong?

Do I have an agenda?

What are my motives for wanting to be right or for converting people to my point of view? Am I in it for “me” or for “we?" Sometimes the motivation to “fix” others stems from a sincere desire to help them be their best. Other times the motive is less pure. Do I have an ego-centric need to be the hero who saves the day or be the person who has all the right answers? Can I reach the mindset that helping people grow their skills and abilities is an ongoing process aimed at what’s best for them, not a one-time event designed to get me in the spotlight?

We owe almost all our knowledge not to those who have agreed, but to those who have differed. ~Charles Caleb Colton, cleric and writer

Am I hiding something?

If I’m honest with myself, is my interest in fixing others an attempt to hide my own feelings of incompetence or insecurity? Are my motives for wanting to change others a way to deflect my inner concerns about my own qualifications?

Am I being curious or judgmental?

Am I guilty of letting my opinion masquerade as a fact? Opinions are personal points of view, judgments, and conclusions. February is the best month. Steve is a bad boss. Older women should have short hair. Facts are concrete realities that are verifiable by observation (the earth makes one rotation every 24 hours), consistent with the rules of a symbol system (2+2=4), or apply objective standards of value (stealing is against the law). Am I engaging in critical thinking and seeking out a spectrum of ideas, or always going with my gut? Do I practice only “tend and befriend” or “fight or flight?”

Am I ready to give positional unconditional regard?

Can I accept that having positive unconditional regard doesn’t require that I accept someone’s differing viewpoint, only that I acknowledge—without judgment—their right to believe, think, and differently than we do? Am I capable of seeing the act of giving positive unconditional regard as a kind of a golden rule about thinking, doing, and being that makes room for everyone?

Am I worthy?

Leaders—true leaders, those worthy of the word…lead us to truth, worth, nobility, wonder, imagination, joy, heartbreak, challenge, rebellion, and meaning. ~Umair Haque, author

Ready to invest in the power of differences?

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