Most leadership experts believe there are fundamental truths at the heart of effective leadership and professional advancement. While I agree in theory, I also recognize how tempting it can be to treat the leadership journey like a check list. Every truth – if interpreted too concretely – is potentially misleading, and can cause us to make decisions that compromise our outcomes. “Truths” should always be viewed in context, and with consideration for source, place, time, and degree. Certain principles can be true and false at the same time, so it’s incumbent upon us to lead with discernment…and with the end in mind.
Here are 5 paradoxical truths we should hold lightly, and be willing to flip when needed.
1. Women have earned a seat at the leadership table.
TRUTH: Of course women have earned a seat at the table. Women comprise more than half the professional workforce, and add much needed perspectives to business challenges. A 2016 PIIE international study found that companies with at least a 30% representation of women on boards or in C-Suite positions are 15% more profitable than those without.
LIE: A seat? As in just one? Women have to stop believing there’s room for only one of them at the top. Women make the majority of purchasing decisions, are over 40% of U.S. heads of household, and are collaborative leaders – a sought after skill in a marketplace that’s more interconnected than ever. Additionally, once we get to the table, we have a role to play in redefining it. Stop with this “one seat” lie!
2. Advocating for women leaders will hurt your career.
TRUTH: If you promote women blindly, without a critical assessment of skills, behaviors, fit, or readiness, you will be perceived as less credible, and your recommendations will carry little weight. In some cultures, leaders have a heightened sensitivity to cronyism when it comes to diverse talent. Know your company culture, and navigate it carefully.
LIE: Some women have allowed the fear of perceived cronyism to stop them from advocating for those who not only deserve their advocacy, but who need it. It’s unfortunate, but we’re so concerned about others questioning our integrity that we lose sight of a couple things: 1. White men have been advocating for each other for years. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad for doing something they do naturally, without a second thought. 2. If we don’t speak up for other women, who will? There’s nothing wrong with actively supporting deserving women, as long as we’re not damaging anyone else.
3. Work really hard, and you’ll get ahead.
TRUTH: Being excellent at what you do is the price of entry. You must work hard, do your best, be reliable, and exude professionalism. You will be working alongside others who are as smart, committed, and capable as you. You can’t afford to put less effort into your work than they do.
LIE: Working hard isn’t an advancement strategy. It’s more like a “keep your job” strategy. Hard work is expected. What else should you do to position yourself for success? You have to build relationships. Identify and intentionally leverage your differentiated value. Be generous – offer your talents when really important problems need to be solved. Work hard, yes, but don’t stop there.
4. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
TRUTH: If no one knows you, then who will speak up for you when prime opportunities come along? No one, that’s who. You’ll not even be in the consideration set. Others won’t have the comfort of knowing how you operate, how effectively you influence, or what sets you apart. Being unknown is just about the worst thing you can be when you really want to grow and contribute.
LIE: The workplace is very competitive these days. Style without substance is easier to spot, and harder to maintain over the long haul. You have to be known, AND you have to know stuff! Continue to increase your knowledge, refine your skills, and enhance your contribution. Leadership effectiveness is about what you know AND who you know.
5. In order to win, you have to play the game.
TRUTH: Every company has both written and unwritten rules. If you don’t know them, you can make some pretty monumental mistakes. It’s important to understand your company culture, to respect it, and to know how to navigate it.
LIE: Don’t fall for the idea that you can’t be your true self at work. You CAN be successful without changing the core of who you are. That said, you have to be flexible. Learn to distinguish between who you are and how you show up. Who you are is comprised of what you believe and value, your purposes, and your talents. But the clothes you wear, the way you engage, your style of leading or communicating – these things evolve as we grow. Don’t change who you are. And at the same time, be open to personal growth and adaptation.
The best truth to embrace is the one that gets us closer to what we want. The lens through which we view the world is powerful – we must make sure that lens is clear and unfiltered by fear, frustration, or other people’s hangups. Leadership is a journey, and along the way, we figure out the path that works for us. Are there leadership best practices? Of course there are. But before you jump on the leadership “truth” train, make sure it’s not a lie in disguise.
Tara Jaye Frank is CEO of TJF Career Modeling, a leadership and culture transformation consultancy specializing in women’s leadership and diversity and inclusion strategy. Tara Jaye is also Corporate Culture Advisor for Hallmark Cards, Inc. and the author of Say Yes: A Woman’s Guide to Advancing Her Professional Purpose, written to help women from all cultural backgrounds chart a career course they can believe in and achieve. Follow her on Twitter @tarajfrank, Instagram @tarajayefrank, or Facebook at Facebook/tarajayefrank.