Dangerous Extremes

Two weeks ago, as part of one of my educational leadership classes, I participated in a fascinating exercise. During class, my professor asked each of us students to identify 3-5 of our personal character traits that would make us good leaders. After a few minutes of silence during which we thought and wrote independently, he asked us to name the opposite of each of the character traits we had listed. Just as I set about writing, thinking that his second instruction would be easier than the first, he qualified the second instruction, saying that we had to name the opposite of each character trait in such a way that the opposite trait could still be understood as valuable or important in an effective leader.

I quickly realized that the second instruction was going to be much more difficult than the first.

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I had described myself as analytical, reflective, reliable and having integrity and was able to see the value of those attributes with respect to effective leadership. And, with a bit of thought, I was able to identify a valuable opposite to being analytical and reflective. In fact, as I wrote the words intuitive and action-oriented, I started to recall specific instances in which colleagues with traits opposite to mine kept me from being pulled too far to the extremes of my tendencies. For all the value of an analytical and/or reflective approach, I do need reminders to trust my instincts and take action.

Having said that, it was still hard to think of valuable opposites to reliability and integrity. As I struggled with the task, I realized that my difficulty with it had a lot to do with the fact that I have a very high value for reliability and integrity. Still a bit puzzled, I decided to try a “devil’s advocate” kind of approach. I tried to challenge to value of reliability and integrity. How could reliability and integrity, out of balance without their opposites, be a bad thing?

That seemed to make a difference. Taken too far, or seen in a negative light, my tendency to be reliable could mean that I’m inflexible, boring, or stuck in old (possibly bad) habits. Similarly, while I still value integrity, I do worry that if I make too much of having integrity, I could be perceived as self-righteous or judgemental.

I have always valued diversity, but this exercise illustrated its value specifically in the context of leadership. I love the idea of people who are different from each other keeping each other from being pulled to dangerous extremes.

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