“Surrender” may sound like an odd topic in a series on leadership, but it’s extremely important for leaders. In the words of Kenny Rogers, we have to “know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” Leaders who get overly attached to any one strategy can easily miss opportunities and rub people the wrong way. When that happens, it’s better to surrender the strategy in order to save the situation. Sound intriguing? Read on to learn how you, too, might carry your agenda a little more lightly and, as a result, a little more successfully.
The inspiration for this Provision was the mid-term elections in the United States. For those who don’t know, the party in power • in this case, the Democrats • suffered its biggest losses in Congress since 1938. As one can imagine, these results have led to a huge debate over what the results mean and how to move forward. Some argue for surrender while others for standing firm.
The case for standing firm sounds like a playbook for leadership. “Never surrender” is, in fact, an oft-repeated refrain when it comes to the literature. Leaders, we are led to believe, set sights on a vision and then hold fast until the vision comes to pass. That may even have been your take away from my own reflections on the subject last June, in my Provision titled Persistence Matters. If so, then I encourage you to think again. At times, it’s better to surrender.
Distinguishing those times makes all the difference in the world when it comes to leadership. Great leaders make great calls when it comes to surrendering and standing firm. One thing is clear: in my own experience, my greatest leadership mistakes have always surfaced when I made the wrong call.
To guide our decision process it’s important to distinguish between form and substance, strategies and needs, egos and essentials. The more attached we become to our ideas as to how to get things done, the more we risk mistaking stubbornness for persistence. The two are quite different. Stubbornness reflects a “my way or the highway” attitude that is both unappealing and counterproductive when it comes to leadership. Persistence surrenders “my way” in order to find a better way • and there’s often a better way.
Take what’s happening in the wake of the mid-term elections around three different issues: finance, education, and health. There are huge differences of opinion between the left and the right, between Democrats and Republicans, over how to move forward. As long as the debate stays on that level, there will be nothing but conflict and little chance of surrender. But look behind the strategies.
- Finance. Many Democrats believe in regulated markets while many Republicans believe in free markets. To what end, however? Both parties want an economy that promotes fairness, safety, productivity, and work. Discussions that start around those core values, appreciating their meaning and importance before moving on to strategies, may lead to greater openness, compromise, and progress.
- Education. Many Democrats believe in universal public education while many Republicans believe in competition and choice. To what end, however? Both parties want schools that promote vitality, learning, competence, and citizenship. Discussions that start around those core values, especially discussions involving the real experiences of teachers and students, may lead to new levels of engagement in the search for solutions.
- Health. Many Democrats believe in governmental protections while many Republicans believe in personal responsibility. To what end, however? Both parties want people to be vigorous, healthy, fit, and secure. Discussions that start around those core values, taking into account the science of human flourishing, may lead to interesting accommodations when it comes to strategies.
Surrender matters when it comes to strategies. Strategies are always expendable and getting overly attached to any one strategy is dangerous. Core values such as fairness and productivity, learning and citizenship, or health and security are essential and getting overly cavalier about any one need is even more dangerous.
That’s why great leaders defer the conversation about strategies until everyone has had a chance to fully express and appreciate the conversation about values. What matters most here? What are we trying to accomplish? Who are we trying to serve? What needs are we trying to meet? However we frame the question, there is a clear difference between ends and means. Great leaders start with the ends in mind and they don’t just keep those ends to themselves.
Great leaders encourage great conversations about great ideals. Until and unless those conversations have worked their magic, opening up people to see each other as sharing a common humanity and common concerns, talk of means and strategies will often bog down and break down into adversarial posturing and political maneuvering.
That is exactly what’s been happening in society for far too long. We have been putting the cart before the horse; we have been debating tactics before discussing targets. And we have been suffering the consequences.
One of those consequences has been a breakdown in civility. An even more serious consequence, however, has been a breakdown in creativity. People who are unwilling and unable to surrender their strategies are severely limited in their willingness and ability to see new possibilities. As a result, compromises and solutions become even less likely while vitriol and violence become even more likely.
I’m discouraged and, at times, fearful over these developments. I’m especially disappointed when leaders fall into this trap, because it represents such a squandered opportunity. Surrender matters because it holds the key to both collaboration and innovation. When leaders hold lightly our ideas as to how to get something done, even as we hold fast to our common values and concerns, people are much more likely to become open, inventive, imaginative, and deliberative in the search for strategies.
For this to happen, leaders must surrender not only our strategies but also our egos. The more we think of ourselves as having all the answers, as being in control, or as identified with the strategies themselves, the more personally we take things and the more problems we get ourselves into. Although it is impossible for leaders to be completely selfless, it is important for leaders to keep our egos in check.
That’s the only way for organizations, schools, communities, and societies to move beyond seemingly intractable impasses. Leaders must set aside both strategies and egos in the search for solutions. We must, instead, focus attention and conversation on those higher values that are true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, and gracious. When such beautiful things become our focus, old wounds will heal and new possibilities for moving forward together will emerge.
Coaching Inquiries: What values do you hold most dear? When was the last time that you had a conversation about those things with a friend? What about with someone of a different political party or persuasion? How might you become more creative in the search for common ground? What would it take to become less invested in and attached to your own ideas? How could you share that freedom with others?
To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.
Thanks for your Provision, Gratitude Matters. On Thanksgiving Day my family and I gathered for a fine dinner. As I looked around the table I recognized how much I appreciate each person there. I spoke to the children about Gratitude (the feeling inside us) and Thanksgiving (the outward expression of that feeling,…and how important it is for us to express the feeling inside, gratitude by saying our thanks to others. So, I give thanks to you, Bob, for your thoughtful and educated work in these Provisions. It represents a core support for the life I aspire to live. It does me good to know that my own values are held and supported elsewhere in the universe. You are a blessing.
Thanks for your Provision, Strengths Matter. Thanks, too, for inspiring so many to be truer, stronger, and more beautiful! I’ve been able to share your book on coaching in schools with three teachers, all of whom fully agree with your premises and approach. It is so up-building and affirming of teachers.
If you do a second edition I’d like an even stronger emphasis on Asset Based Community Development. The •needs• and •problems• approach to the world is so all-consuming it is sometimes hard to escape it and it feels to me that a few too many times you succumb to our culture’s dominant approach. I encourage you to reflect on how many times you use •needs• assessments and thinking in your first edition, rather than strengths to develop and build on.
(Ed. Note: We view “universal needs” or “underlying needs” as strengths, rather than as deficits. People are not needy just because we have needs. Universal needs are the source of all ambition, motivation, and desire. We are working on a second edition, for leaders and leadership coaches, and we will be sure to make that clear.)
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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