Leadership Tensions: Paradoxes That Keep Us Dancing with our Leadership Story

“Leadership Freak” blogger Dan Rockwell offered an intriguing list of leadership tensions this week:

The Ten Tensions of Leadership:

  1. Tenacity and kindness.

  2. Vision and openness.

  3. Kindness and candor.

  4. Passion and quietness.

  5. Analysis and initiative.

  6. Planning and people.

  7. Solitude and relationships.

  8. High expectations and helpfulness.

  9. Decisiveness and listening.

  10. Focus and flexibility.

In the lively discussion afterwards, he said he had initially resisted working with such obvious leadership issues, but had found that the straightforward challenges of leadership are both obvious and important! I’ve found that to be true as well, especially when we’re talking about developing interpersonal skills to figure out which side of these leadership tensions to choose in a given moment.

I’d like to add another element to open up broader coping skills in the leadership dance with paradoxical demands: expanding our leadership story so that we have access to the skills we need in the many tense or paradoxical situations we might face!

I’ve argued before that we all need to develop our shapeshifter leadership skills in order to strategically shift between the roles we must fill in our organizations. That’s basically about having a flexible understanding of our authenticity as a leader, knowing our identity and authentic story as a process.

We need to align our flexible authenticity with our organizational roles  in order to offer our unique skills and perspectives, and even challenge the status quo, without tripping ourselves up.

For example, I have a client who is a visionary leader in the classroom, a teacher who could design brilliant and engaging curriculum. Flexibility and focus, no problem when students are involved! His core story/identity is that he’s an innovator, a trailblazer, a provocateur — and that really works to inspire his students.

wolf-jpgBut when dealing with administration, his innovator leadership story became more of a “lone wolf” misunderstood story, isolating him and making him less effective. He experienced rules and rubrics as chains and constriction, and got frustrated easily. Even though he knows how to make those same rules and rubrics work in the classroom leadership dance, he stepped on all kinds of toes with deans and department chairs.

The problem wasn’t that he lacks skill — it’s that his story was stuck in one gear. When he was able to activate another aspect of his story, his relationships with administrators turned around 100%.

He woke up the servant leader in his innovator story, identifying himself as a missionary for effective adult learning. His passion to be understood became a passion for connection through service. He was able to listen better in meetings, apply his considerable communication skills to share his great ideas and acknowledge the serious issues behind the rules he once chafed against. His colleagues were able to see his gifts, not just his visionary rebellion.

wolf-pack-1This shift in his story moved him into a more effective authenticity, a flexible process that allowed him to shapeshift in roles and responses without diminishing his sense of self. In fact, he was able to expand his story of what it means to be a visionary from lone wolf innovator into an equally fierce and satisfying connection with community and service. In a sense, he recognized that his “pack” wasn’t just in the classroom but in his department.

When our stories expand to make our practical leadership skills more effective, it’s easier to cope with common leadership tensions. The paradoxes behind the situational tensions we face are resolved not just through knowing how to have better conversations, or listen more actively, or whatever the practice of leadership requires. We resolve paradoxes more gracefully when we have a flexible process of authenticity, living a better leadership story, so we can have access to our skills, knowledge and vision in any situation.


  1. […] Leadership Tensions: Paradoxes That Keep Us Dancing with our Leadership Story (leadershipspirit.wordpress.com) […]


  2. […] Be conscious of the leadership story you’re living! As you navigate the tensions of leadership, pay attention to the ways your past experiences and expectations shape your responses, and change […]


  3. […] Leadership Tensions: Paradoxes That Keep Us Dancing with our Leadership Story (leadershipspirit.wordpress.com) […]


    1. Thanks for the connection! I agree with you, that dealing with stress is one of the greatest crisis prevention skills of any leader or manager!


  4. […] a leadership paradox if I ever read one — what matters more, what we do or who we are? In leadership theory, it's […]


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