Senator Ted Cruz calls the shutdown of the United States government an “epic battle,” conjuring images of a fight between good and evil. In his saga, the “epic battle” involves governmental combat between the forces of darkness and the forces of light.
As a backdrop to this dangerous political fracas, Cruz’ epic battle denies a fundamental principle of leadership: the notion that you need to engage complexity and uncertainty to solve real world problems.
“Wait a minute,” you might say, “that’s dead wrong.” For you, unwavering clarity and certainty could define strong leadership, full stop.
This tension points to the paradoxical nature of mature leadership that has rarely shown its face in recent weeks. Both claims have truth in them.
Sometimes leaders show their moral courage through a willingness to take a stand and hold their ground, no matter what. At other times, though, holding rigidly to a position and remaining utterly closed to influence is no longer leadership and no longer moral.
As challenging as it sounds, great leaders appreciate that both certainty and uncertainty have their place and time. Either stance as a rigid philosophy loses the moral high ground. Life isn’t so simple. Except when it is.
The Delight of Being Right
Few things in life feel as good as being right. We love to say “I told you so,” or at least to think it to ourselves. Knowing that we’ve got it right and “they” have it wrong provides the sweetness of victory, whether we’re correcting our business partners, our direct reports, or our spouse.
Beneath the superficial pleasure, being right also makes a statement about the world we live in, one that allows for simple truths and immovable positions. We’ve heard a lot from this viewpoint of late. Good guys and bad guys duke it out every day to prove the rightness of their ways, to separate the villains from the heroes.
There’s a certain appeal to this right-and-wrong world. You escape gnawing pangs of doubt, the confusion of ambiguity, and the creeping sense that you’ve turned the wrong way. You save all the time that other people waste reflecting on their past actions and wondering if they’ve made a mistake. Convinced that you’re unequivocally correct, you never need to apologize, or clean up your mess.
Where do we sign up?
The Rightness of Certainty and Uncertainty
Without doubt, core certainties are essential. A well-lived life includes knowing who you are, what you value, who you love, what you believe. Leaders earn our trust by telling us what matters to them, and then acting accordingly.
The tricky thing about mature leadership is that at the very same time as you need to show consistency and reliability, you also need the agility to stop, assess, and mid-course correct. Certainty is crucial. But it doesn’t always take the day.
More often than not, leading wisely requires taking a deep breath, rolling up your sleeves, and wading into the muddy pools of paradox. It demands a willingness to champion the right answer, and then, sometimes, to know you don’t know what’s best. Yes, great leaders stand firm. They also learn from events as they unfold. They adapt. Innovate. Improvise. Strong leaders take bold risks. They also admit when they’re wrong.
Remember when Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, had his run-in with some over-ambitious traders in London? In the spring of 2012, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker was bargaining with Washington over banking regulation, commonly known as the Volcker Rule. Dimon led the charge against it.
Dimon was so sure he was right that he took to the airways like a fearless matador, flashing his red cape and taunting his adversary. He said Volcker “doesn’t understand capital markets,” a claim not only far-fetched but also inflammatory. He famously brushed off concerns as “a tempest in a teapot.” Sound like a claim to the truth that you’ve heard from anyone else lately?
Actually, I think back to Dimon now, but not because of the forceful tone or rhetoric we hear again today. On the contrary, he comes to mind because of the contrasts between Dimon and Cruz in their leadership choices after using similar tactics to derail legislation they deplored.
Adaptability, Not Brinksmanship, Is a Leader’s Real Leverage
What’s the difference between Dimon and Cruz?
Not long after Dimon’s tirade, the world discovered billions of dollars of trading losses from JP Morgan’s Chief Investment Office. The failure in risk management and internal controls led to myriad investigations, as well as the nickname of “London Whale” befalling a key player for his outsized positions on credit default swaps.
There, in the face of a total debacle, Dimon revealed the maturity of his leadership by choosing complexity over continuing his unwavering certainty.
Dimon didn’t deny the extremity of the breakdown. He didn’t keep going with business as usual, as if the London transactions didn’t undermine precisely the campaign he’d led so vigorously. Instead, he adapted. Seeing the new reality, he faced the music, head-on. He turned to national television again, this time declaring, “I was dead wrong.”
Contrast Cruz’ leadership choices. More than a week into the shutdown (or slimdown, depending on whom you ask), Obamacare seems no closer to dismantlement. Parks and museums are closed. And of course, the impact on people is substantial. People out of benefits. People out of paychecks. People out of work and running out of hope.
Another significant impact is on America’s reputation around the world. My friend Emily got an email yesterday from a community in Rwanda where she volunteers. It read, “We are all praying for you and for your government.” Oh, dear.
While the human suffering grows and we draw closer to the verboten default possibility, Cruz and his followers fail to learn from Dimon’s example. They refuse to act like grown-up leaders, people who understand the ebb and flow of certainty and ambiguity, of absolute clarity and confounding uncertainty. They prefer to play a game of chicken with the markets of the whole world, calling flirtation with default “leverage” against the President.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe wholeheartedly in a moral compass to guide our thinking and in values to direct our actions. Not everything is open to debate. At the same time, in times of national crisis like this one, rigid posturing and blind adherence to our own certainties isn’t going to work. It’s not helping our leaders, and it’s not a model for us to follow.
Yes. It does feel good to be right. But as we now know, it’s no walk in the park.