Variety is the Spice of Leadership

Wouldn’t it be great if chocolate was one of the four food groups?

Maybe my preference to see that happen (*smile*) is why the topic of 31 flavors keeps popping into how I think about success, civility, inclusion, leadership, and respect.

I worked in corporate America for lots of years. When I look back at that time, I see how all the places where I worked managed by one flavor. That flavor was numbers, results, and the bottom line. Because I was ambitious, I was complicit and played along in placing a higher value on results than relationships. Today, the memories of my conformity haunt me.

Single Flavor Expectations

If you love chocolate like I do, imagine how frustrating it would be to walk into an ice cream parlor and find that only vanilla was sold. If you own that ice cream parlor and love vanilla, imagine how wearisome it would be to have to deal with those people who can’t get with the program because they want chocolate. Isn’t that a parallel to what many people encounter every day when they go to work? The expectation to do things “one” way or else? The pressure to conform?

Having standardized business processes and procedures makes good business sense. Otherwise, there’s confusion and chaos. But standardized everything, the one flavor from processes to thinking to doing approach, leaves precious little room for diversity of thought, opinion, perspective, and experience. The 31 flavors stuff brings zest, both good and not so good, to life, love, and leadership.

“Being ‘right’ is the easy part. Finding the ‘rightness’ within the opposite point of view is the challenge.” ~Barry Johnson, author Polarity Management

Multi-Flavor Rewards

One long-ago boss preferred logic, numbers, and results. Everyone on his team was only as good as their last set of numbers. I struggled with his unyielding orientation. I got that numbers were important (that complicity thing), but my personal preference was connection and relationship.

As you might imagine, that boss and I had our challenges. While our approaches were different, we had the advantage of liking and respecting each other. Our spirited debates were sometimes epic. Over time, though, we came to realize that our region was most successful when we focused on both results and relationships, one pair of those sometimes contentious opposites.

Our path to accepting “multiple flavors” was a bumpy yet rewarding one filled with lessons, loud voices, and laughter as we learned about our blind spots and tested our tolerance for seeing beyond our own preferences. While that boss and I learned many things, five items made a profound difference in how we approached one other as well as those around us.

We learned:

  1. To be extremely cautious when we found ourselves using the word should. Leading with thoughts about what should be introduced personal bias, which reduced being open-minded, which in turn increased right versus wrong arguments, which then reduced opportunity and dented camaraderie.
  2. To test replacing the word "or" with "and." Either/or thinking zaps innovation and inclusion; both/and thinking boosts them. Thinking “and” expands comfort zones, too. That boss and I discovered that we usually preferred one side of “or” to the other. However, when we were honest with ourselves and looked at the big picture, we came to realize that the words on both sides of “or” were equally important over time.
  3. To be curious. Taking Walt Whitman’s advice to be curious, not judgmental, was a game changer. We learned more, reduced bias, and had fun seeing things we would have missed before.
  4. To pay attention to our hot buttons. When people or events set us off, we reflected instead of reacting. What a positive difference that made in us as leaders and people.
  5. To feel and express gratitude and appreciation. Letting go of being the all-knowing tough guy who’s got everything under control is liberating. Recognizing others and focusing on what we had versus what we didn’t lightened the mental and emotional load.

“Instead of contradicting each other’s view, the task is to supplement each other’s view in order to see the whole picture. Each of them has key pieces to the puzzle. Paradoxically, opposition becomes resource.” ~Barry Johnson

Five little big things made all the difference in us becoming “31 flavors” leaders, and more importantly, better people—a gift to ourselves and others that keeps giving.

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