Creative Tensions

Last month you will recall at the APM convention, I had a glimpse back in the analysis and wisdom of Gary Hamel. And now, I went back through my archives to draw more of Gary Hamel’s and have to share with you the wisdom which oozes from reconciling opposites which he termed a Creative Tensions. As a good leader, one should be able to accommodate paradoxes and above all master the powers of paradoxes.

What is the well-spring of America’s unending talent for renewal? It is a series of seemingly irreconcilable opposites—tensions that America holds in perpetual creative balance. No nation has ever been so defined by dichotomy, or drawn such strength from seemingly irreconcilable opposites.

America makes no apology for its competing and clashing voices. Therein lie the roots of resilience: This ability to embrace the extremes—while not becoming extremist.

So what are these contradictions that America has navigated so adroitly? And what lessons do they offer business leaders and their companies?

1. Coherence and diversity. America is a society born of an idea—that all men and women are created equal and capable of self-government. This idea, when embraced earnestly, puts the newest naturalized citizen on a par with the bluest-blood Daughter of the American Revolution.

We are all hypen-Americans: diverse in our roots, yet, united in our affections for this sprawling, kaleidoscopic country. Spin the globe, and you will find oppressive societies with a surfeit of cohesion and a dearth of diversity, or you will find splintered cultures with much diversity and too little cohesion. Where but in America will you find diversity and cohesion in such full measure?

2. Community and activism. President Herbert Hoover coined the term “rugged individualism”and declared this the essence of the American character. Think of the cowboy, that symbol of personal freedom. Yet the tendency towards fierce independence is only one half of the American spirit—the other half is community. Yes, cowboys often rode the range alone, but west-bound pioneers traveled in wagon trains, raised each other’s barns, built schools and towns, and shared whatever fortune gave them.

Yet, in America, the tender bonds of community have always stretched to encompass the one with the new idea, the gentle rebel who abandons “what is” for “what can be.” It is the activists and the rabble-rousers who have called America to reformation. Yet activism in America is inclusionist by nature. We have little patience for those with a sectarian vision.

3. Strength and compassion. More often than not, the history of power is the history of brutality. How rare the government that, like America’s, combines great strength with even greater humanity. When America has gone to war, it has done so with a singular combination of compassion and strength. We see it in today’s War on Terror, as American planes bear not only smart bombs, but payloads of emergency food rations. As someone who has visited virtually every corner of this planet, I can tell you that America is more admired than despised, primarily because America’s strength has never come at the expense of its compassion. Indeed, never has power worn a more compassionate face.

4. Courage and prudence. Our Constitutional system by, of, and for the people has produced leaders who only reluctantly send soldiers into the fray. The caution of America’s leaders—their reluctance to engage unless attacked, their caution in planning before joining the battle, their care in articulating the moral grounds for war—has always been a source of courage for America’s soldiers. No one asks, or expects, them to be martyrs. We don’t celebrate their march into battle. Instead, we pray God’s protection for every man and woman, and we bemoan every loss. We are brave, but we are not foolhardy.

5. Spiritual and material. America is a land in love with the new, a nation of novelty seekers who can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings. And yet, as a people, Americans manage to keep sight of the deeper, more permanent things. Americans are among the most religious people on earth. About half attend religious services each week, and 65 percent are members of a congregation, a higher proportion than in any other developed county. On the other hand, who can match America’s raw commercial instincts—that ability to make a sale, or close a deal?

How strange that a country of believers should have a Constitution that bars the state from interfering in religious life. How unlikely that one of the most avowedly spiritual countries is also one of the most materially successful. Again, we welcome the extremes, grapple with them, confront them—and ultimately, transcend them.

Whenever the pendulum swings too far—towards banal commercialism or overbearing religiosity—Americans find a way of restoring the balance. Today, the pendulum is moving back towards timeless spiritual values.

What can struggling companies learn from the grand American example? Just this: To embrace the power of paradox whole-heartedly and unreservedly. To be single-minded about nothing and open to everything.

The power of paradox is the power of and. In my experience, executives too often see an either/or when they should be searching for an and. Too often these choices are posed as short-term versus long-term, control versus autonomy, cutting versus growing. But a truly resilient company can’t be all one thing; it can’t even be most of one thing. It must have all of many things: all efficiency and all innovation, all optimization and all experimentation, all discipline and all passion, all evolution and all revolution.

Accommodating these paradoxes will require ambidextrous leaders and companies where the accountants and engineers become dreamers and rebels, where bold strategies are pursued with temperate means.

Resilience is an American specialty. After all, a paradox stands at the heart. E Pluribus Unum: “From many, one.”


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