I saw the immensity of the task before me and I fled its summons. –Tolstoy

Servant-Leadership is concerned with Problems, Paradoxes, Polarities and Dilemmas.  The distinctions are crucial and so are the ways we respond to each of them.  We could spend a great deal of time addressing each of these, but our space is limited so I will offer us a ‘short-version’ of each to consider.

Problems.  Problems exist.  Problems are to be solved.  The ‘problem’ with ‘problems’ is that too often too many of us ‘see’ only ‘Problems.’  Too often we miss the reality that what we are encountering is one of the other three AND YET because we ‘see’ a ‘problem’ we believe that we can ‘solve it’.  Then, we wonder why our solutions did not work; we become quite perplexed.  The other three ARE NOT ‘problems’ to be ‘solved.’  Period.

Paradoxes.  Paradox = a proposition that seems self-contradictory.  For our purposes consider that a ‘paradox’ is simply a BOTH-AND proposition.  For example, an organization must embrace BOTH the short-term AND the long-term at the same time; it must embrace BOTH the short-view AND the long-view at the same time.  Consider that a servant-leader is challenged to embrace BOTH justice AND mercy at the same time.  Consider that the servant-leader is also challenged to embrace BOTH the needs of the individual AND the needs of the community/organization/division/department or team at the same time.

Polarities.  Polarities and Paradoxes are similar AND they are not the same.  Aristotle (yes, that guy) helps us when it comes to engaging polarities.  He offered us the ‘Golden Mean’ – the ‘Golden Mean’ by the by does not indicate the ‘middle’ or the half-way point or the ‘center.’  Let’s take one example.  The paradox ‘Individual-Community’ can also be a polarity.  Imagine a continuum; a straight-line if you will.  At one end resides the ‘Individual’ and at the other end resides the ‘Community.’  At a moment or two in time the organization might find that the ‘Golden Mean’ favors the ‘Individual’ and at another moment or two in time the organization might find that the ‘Golden Mean’ favors the ‘Community.’

Dilemmas.  Dilemmas are the most challenging of the four.  One reason is that most of them create ‘forced choices’ for us.  If you, gentle reader, are like I am then you too will dislike being confronted with a ‘forced choice.’  When faced with a dilemma our challenge is to ‘resolve it’ or ‘dissolve it.’  There are two types of dilemmas.  There is a ‘right-right’ dilemma and a ‘harm-harm’ dilemma.

With the ‘right-right’ dilemma I/We are faced with two ‘rights’ and we must choose one of them (this is what is called ‘resolving the dilemma’); with some good thinking we might be able to ‘dissolve’ the dilemma, which means that we do not have to choose – we ‘make the dilemma go away.’  ‘Right-Right’ dilemmas are challenging.  ‘Harm-Harm’ dilemmas are exponentially more challenging because no matter which one we choose ‘harm will occur.’

Consider the following.  At times it is ‘right’ for a supervisor, manager, executive, or owner to choose in favor of the individual and not in favor of the community (team, department, etc.) and at times it is ‘right’ for them to choose in favor of the community. Each choice is ‘right’ – hence the dilemma.

Now, consider this one.  In order to keep the doors of the company open we must lay off 20 people.  If we lay them off they will be harmed.  If we keep them the company will be harmed.  No matter what we choose, harm will occur.  This is a classic ‘harm-harm’ dilemma.  We resolve the dilemma by choosing one of the harms.

Now, it might be that we can actually dissolve or dramatically minimize the harm by eliminating the dilemma.  How might we do this?  Here is an example, from ‘real life.’

In the late 1980s I was consulting with an organization that over-night lost 20% of its business (literally over-night).  The next day I sat in with the executive team as they struggled with what to do.  It appeared that they would have to lay off 15% of their employees.  The conversation concerned itself with the ‘who’ and the ‘how’ (‘who’ = a cross-section of employees and the ‘how’ = how can we do this in the most humane way).  The questions we ask dramatically determine the path we take.  Given this, I asked the following question: ‘What can you do, that would guarantee that you could keep everyone employed?’

They embraced this question.  Responded to it.  They found a way that would allow them to keep everyone employed.  By doing this they dissolved the dilemma (made it disappear).  Even though the ‘harm-harm’ dilemma was dissolved harm did occur – it was, however, minimal and it was embraced by, and affected, ALL.

The act teaches you the meaning of the act. –Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel


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