The simplest theory of Warren Buffett is that a lot of his value-add comes from his ability [to combine characteristics that many suppose to be contradictory]. The trick is to be rigorous while seeming sentimental, to drive a hard bargain by looking like a teddy bear.—Matt Levine, Bloomberg View.
Our world is often comprehended, given order, by our sense of dualities.
Consciously and unconsciously, we often tend to express dualities in terms of division. For reasons of custom and comfort—rather than logic and service—we may categorize qualities and concepts as inevitably opposed, one to another.
Are such divisions, contradictions, necessarily apt?
Who is being served by common understandings of such dualities?
Is there value to be created in taking another look? Is there energy to be found in reconciling apparent dualities in unaccustomed, unexpected ways?
For those who serve by leading, can dueling dualities be brought together toward a greater whole—toward an overarching, authentic integrity?
How do we identify and cleanse our thinking about false binaries? What things that we assume to be in opposition can be reimagined as coexisting–or mutually reinforcing?
Dueling Dualities | False Binaries
Reflect for a moment on commonplace dualities:
—Leader vs. Manager
—Ideas vs. Implementation
—Thinker vs. Doer
—Actor vs. Critic
—Strong vs. Kind
—Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down
—Inside-Out vs. Outside-In
—Strategy vs. Management
—Listener vs. Speaker
—Intellectual vs. Physical
—Spiritual vs. Sensual
—Intelligent vs. Sexy
—Creative vs. Conscientious
—Serious vs. Fun
—Kind vs. Successful
—Old vs. Creative
—Young vs. Wise
—Creative vs. Conscientious
—Curious vs. Focused
—Spontaneous vs. Reliable
—Reserved vs. Assertive
—Male vs. Female
—Independent vs. Needy
—Individual vs. Collective
—Freedom vs. Discipline
—Specialist vs. Generalist
—Public Sector vs. Private Sector
—Participant vs. Spectator
What others come to your mind?
Dangers of Categories
It’s easy to understand why individuals might categorize others within relevant dualities. Such categories are familiar. They may point us toward a rapid understanding of people or circumstances, based on our prior observation or experience.
In some cases we might apply dualities to rationalize our own real—or apparent—limitations.
Whatever the basis, a problem arises when we default to either-or thinking.
We may misperceive reality. We may miss opportunities to create value. We may open ourselves to manipulation by those who recognize that our unexamined presumptions have supplanted the hard work of listening and thinking.
Dualities may be turned subtly, insidiously to control others, to hold them back from their potential contribution.
We may say:
—“He’s old; we need someone young who will be creative.”
—“She’s reserved; we need someone who’s assertive.”
—“He’s sexy; we need someone who’s intelligent.”
—“She’s a specialist; we need someone who’s a generalist.”
—“He’s a manager; we need a leader.”
Sometimes these kinds of generalizations are apt. At least as often they’re not.
The result: Many opportunities for creating value may be obscured.
Coercion by Categorization
There’s no doubt about it: categorization can become a means of coercion.
Think of some of the pay-offs for slotting people within either-or categories:
—it may enable some people, motivated by envy or other self-regarding vices, to deny the reality of someone else’s unusual capacity to add value in unexpected ways.
—it may use group identity or definition to suppress individual growth and uniqueness.
—it may provide the dangerous comfort of a slide to approved mediocrity.
—it may substitute for the hard work of thinking—insofar as categorical “thinking” is an evasion of the labor and risk of critical thinking.
How is effective leadership navigated amid the snares of dueling dualities?
—Don’t presume that dualities are necessarily apt. At the least, don’t assume that they apply in any given set of circumstances.
—Decline to be defined by dualities that don’t apply to you.
—Liberate others from the confinement of their own dueling dualities. They may be imprisoned in a self-concept that is unnecessarily limiting. They may be operating on the basis of an unexamined or outdated worldview.
—Take care not to presume that an individual who exhibits high performance in one side of a duality may not be able to perform as well or better on the other side.
It’s striking how many consequential leaders in various fields have challenged or redefined commonly understood dualities. One often hears them described as marked by contradictions.
—Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich are noted for upsetting of traditional masculine-feminine archetypes.
—Ronald Reagan exhibited a series of contradictory elements that expanded common understandings of leadership. Among them: he was a professional actor, yet notably authentic; he was personally reserved, yet strikingly able to communicate with large audiences; he was preternaturally confident of his capacity to lead, yet exceedingly modest in many interpersonal dealings.
—Theodore Roosevelt established recognition that a person could be effective in the world of action as well as the world of thought. Ernest Hemingway and many others built much of their own life and work on TR’s example.
Who would have thought that revolution could be non-violent? History is replete with revolutions reliant on violence.
—Mahatma Gandhi was schooled in English jurisprudence and tradition. He deployed his understanding of British values to craft a non-violent approach to large-scale social and political change. Gandhi’s vision was compelling in conception, transformative in result. He elicited a change in public consciousness in the face of an established empire that had repeatedly deployed ruthless violence over the course of several centuries.
—Martin Luther King, Jr. adopted Gandhi’s approach in America. He helped break the back of Jim Crow without resort to violence. King held fast to his faith that the American people would respond to just claims on the overdue promissory notes of civic equality in the Declaration of Independence.
As these varied examples suggest, it’s in the reconciliation of dueling dualities that genius may be unleashed.
The capacity to alter understandings of accepted dualities can be a source of leadership genius. Transformational leaders recombine traits and customs and shared understandings. They can create value through their vision and ultimate reality of new, unexpected combinations.
What About You?
What dualities do you see that should be challenged?
What dualities have you placed on others?
Which have you allowed to limit yourself?
To the extent your focus goes beyond yourself–to truly on serving others–are you better able to remove the limitations of your own history or understanding? Are you able to break through dualities by striving to meet others’ needs, casting away outdated self-concepts?
Are there leaders whose examples of transcending dualities inspire your service?
Dueling Dualities | False Binaries