Counterintuitive Thoughts and Paradoxes

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There’s nothing like a good paradox or counterintuitive thought to help stimulate someone’s thinking (and leadership growth). So here are five of my favorites:

  1. “The Best Way to Get Something Done Is by NOT Working on It” – This is about the art, science, and practice of delegation. If a leader works for 60 minutes on something, that equates to one person-hour of productivity (or two-three if s/he’s particularly skilled). But leaders have an average of 7-8 direct reports, which means that if they delegate, instead, that same 60-minutes of work can result in 7-8 hours of productivity, plus all sorts of learning, motivational, and engagement opportunities for staff…and backup and cross-training for the department! Of course, some time has to be given to coaching, training, and mentoring, etc., but the mid- and long-term benefits are still significant.
  2. “Don’t Do What You CAN Do; Do What ONLY You Can Do” – This one is about prioritization. Too often, bosses (especially those promoted up the chain) are better are doing their staff’s work than their staff is. (That’s often why they were promoted.) But a supervisor doing an analyst’s work isn’t leadership; it’s just being a ‘super-analyst’. So, any work that can be done by someone else should likely be delegated to them so that the leader has the time and space to work on more strategic things that staff cannot do…like staffing plans, certain negotiations, advocating with higher-ups for department funding or visibility or recognition, etc.
  3. “Strive For the Minimum” – Perfectionism is a waste of time and effort, and it only encourages lesser creativity, lesser effectiveness, and lesser satisfaction. Think about Noah and his ark. He wasn’t aiming for perfection (“C’mon, everyone on board!”) No, he was working to meet the minimum functional requirements of the assignment (one male and one female per category). So, as example, when asked to provide a one-page executive summary, don’t write a 17-page missive (because you know 17 pages worth of things about the topic); provide what was actually asked for – a one-page summary. (And don’t go using a 6pt typeface to fit it all in. Respect the recipient with standard margins and fonts!) If you want to overachieve, go ahead and make it the best one-page executive summary that anyone’s ever read, but keep it to one single page, regardless!
  4. “Never Ask When Something’s Due” – Context matters. So, knowing how something will be used is far more helpful (and the ‘when it’s due’ part can often be inferred from it.) Consider a boss who says something like, “I need those numbers by 1pm on Tuesday.” Fine, but not particularly helpful without context. Are the numbers wanted for a casual conversation with someone? Some type of routine status update? A report of some type? Does s/he want it in text form? As a chart? Compared to historical data? Who knows?! Based on the ‘due date’, you can’t really tell. But if you ask how it will be used, you then get, as example, “I’m making a presentation to the Executive Committee at 330pm that day and I want at least an hour to go over them ahead of time.” Or, I need a 5-year budget plan by noon, which I know is unreasonable, but you’re the most qualified person to make those estimates, and that’s really all the Finance Committee is looking at this point.”
  5. “Unfamiliarity is NOT the same as Inability” – Oftentimes leaders are their own worst enemies (as are ‘regular’ people) because they assume they can’t do something (like delegation, working through conflict, making projections, etc.). But more times than not, it’s not that they are unable; they’re just not practiced. Assuming inability, one would try to avoid the task at all costs. Unfamiliarity, though, suggests becoming more familiar with it, which almost automagically tends to improve one’s related skills! You don’t have to dive into the deep end of the pool if you’re not confident in your ability to swim. But that surely doesn’t mean you can’t wade in from the shallow end as you acclimate yourself to what’s needed.

Who DOESN’T Love a Good Paradox?!

Goodness, there are so many more I could share! (And maybe I will in an upcoming post.)

The beauty of a good paradox or counterintuitive thought is that it provides a jolt – a stimulating shove, if you will, that gets people out of their negative self-talk and back into the moment where discovery, insight, learning, growth, and development can all occur. It works in much the same way as humor does – as a seemingly inconsistent juxtaposition of ideas that momentarily, but fully, captures one’s thinking. And provides a fascination to build upon.

Which is why I like to say, “Changing How You THINK…Changes How You Lead!!”

What Leadership Paradoxes Do You Find Helpful?

Please feel free to share your (counterintuitive) thoughts in the comments, below.

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