Gentle Reader, consider that a servant-leader is. . .[Note: this entry is longer than most as I was not able to discern a way of splitting it; I edited it and was able to shorten it a bit.]
Concerned with Problems, Paradoxes & Dilemmas. In our culture we take pride in our ability to solve problems. Today, more than ever before, however, there are many more paradoxes to be embraced and dilemmas to resolve (or dissolve) than problems to be solved. The servant-leader develops his or her capacity to discern and then respond to all three. Here is a common paradox: short-term vs. long-term. Problems solvers tend to focus on one at a time. So they put their energy, time and capacities into addressing the short-term issues and challenges. After some time they realize that the long-term has been neglected (sometimes this is crisis driven) and so the focus is switched to the long-term. After some time they realize that the short-term has been neglected. And so the cycle continues. Short-term and long-term is not a problem but a paradox. Both must be addressed at the same time with equal time, energy and capacities; the ‘either-or’ becomes a ‘both-and’ [as a reminder, a paradox is a seeming contradiction that is actually a sign of interdependence; we need to engage both polarities and we need to engage both of them at the same time]. Another common organizational paradox is: individual-community (or team-department or division-organization). Gentle Reader, I invite you to pause and reflect and emerge other ‘common paradoxes’ that you are charged with embracing.
There are a number of ways of exploring Dilemmas. For our purposes, a dilemma is a forced choice; I must choose one of two. We resolve the dilemma by choosing one or we can dissolve the dilemma by emerging/creating a ‘third-way.’ Unfortunately, the number of dilemmas that leaders encounter continues to increase (or the intensity or severity of a common dilemma increases due to external circumstances). There are two types of dilemmas. A common misunderstanding is that one of them is a ‘right-wrong’ dilemma. Right-wrong dilemmas do not exist (so far, I have not been able to discern one, even in theory). The two common dilemmas that leaders encounter are: right-right dilemmas and harm-harm dilemmas. A common right-right dilemma is: At this moment it is ‘right’ for me to serve your (the individual’s) highest priority needs (this is what a servant-leader is called to do) AND at this moment it is ‘right’ for me to serve the highest priority needs of the community (team, department, division, organization). At this time I can only serve one and in doing so the other will not be ‘purposefully harmed.’ One might well be ‘frustrated’ (frustration = not getting what one wants or getting something one does not want) and one has the capacity to adjust if one’s highest priority needs are not going to be addressed at this time. Leaders do not like ‘right-right’ dilemmas. Yet, they will take them every time in lieu of a ‘harm-harm’ dilemma.
Problems to be solved can be challenging. Paradoxes to embrace can be challenging. Harm-Harm dilemmas are, at best, daunting. Unfortunately the frequency of harm-harm dilemmas continues to increase. Here is a common one that many of us are familiar with. Our organization is in a financial bind and we have determined that we must reduce the number of folks that work for us as a result (Catholic elementary and high schools have been facing this dilemma for a number of years and it does not appear as if it will ‘go away’ — not soon, but ‘ever’). As a servant-leader I am well aware that if I lay-off Fred or Mary or John or Martha that they will be harmed. If I do not lay them off then the organization will be harmed. No matter my choice, harm will occur. In the early 1980s I was a thought-partner to a very successful organization when the recession fell upon us. It was determined that up to 20% of those employed would have to be ‘laid-off.’ The question that guided them was: ‘How can we lay-off folks in the most human and humane way possible?’ Harm will occur to those folks and the organization will be able to keep its doors open. Now, Gentle Reader, you might remember that both the metaphors we use and the questions we muse will often determine the path(s) we choose. So after listening for some time to the 12 people who were holding the question I invited them to pause and hold another question: ‘How can we guarantee that we won’t have to lay-off anyone?’ As they grappled with this question they began to realize that they could dissolve the harm-harm dilemma; they could ‘make it go away.’ And they did. This organization is still alive and vibrant today; I believe partly as a result of their being able to hold a different question and then discerning a response that would enable them to dissolve the dilemma (i.e. make it go away).
Rapid change will continue to be the norm in our culture. Given this, we can then be quite sure (not perfectly sure) that both paradoxes and dilemmas will increase both in number and intensity. Servant-leaders will, especially when things are going well, make sure that leaders (both role defined and situation-defined) will develop the capacities that will enable them to respond to them when paradoxes and dilemmas ‘show up.’ Servant-leaders will also help folks prepare in such a way that if they have to react (which at times they will for being responsive will not be a clear option) they will be able to do so appropriately.