Double Bind

Agile Leadership | Navigating the Double Bind

Over the past two decades, I have had the privilege, through my research, interviews, and hands-on consulting to peek behind the veil surrounding the challenges of becoming a NEW Firm Chair (or whatever title best signifies your firm’s leader).

From candid discussions about the stress involved in looking like you know what you are doing and the huge time demands imposed by your partner’s requests to feeling disorientated by the scale and scope of the mandate, many professionals quietly struggle with the various pressures that accompany their term in office. In fact, I’ve discovered that the great majority of leaders, in any position of responsibility, are at their most vulnerable early in their tenure.

As a new leader, you may be surprised to feel confused and indecisive at the precise time when you most want to appear clear-sighted and strong-minded.  You may feel overwhelmed and anxious just when you know you need to be seen as composed and dynamic. In fact, what I’ve discerned is that there are a number of what I would label the “double binds of leadership” – the more or less ongoing dynamics of the job that incumbents wrestle with, to effectively handle being an effective leader. Here are the top five:

  1. Do I shake things up or do I preserve the status quo? (determining appetite for a change)
  2. Do I strengthen my bonds with people or do I maintain a distance? (developing working relationships)
  3. Do I demonstrate that I know what to do or do I ask for help? (appearing knowledgeable)
  4. Do I strongly influence the decision I want or do I facilitate a consensus? (making decisions)
  5. Do I focus on achieving results or do I accept a degree of uncertainty? (setting action priorities)

Each of us, when first serving as a leader, has a natural predilection to favour one approach or the other; to gravitate to one extremity over the other.  Therefore, our preference, as to whether to “shake things up’’ or to “preserve the status quo” is often hard-wired into us, the result of past experiences gained before entering into our current leadership position.

What seasoned leaders come to learn, is that the only way to navigate these tensions successfully is to be agile in trying to manage both ends . . . simultaneously.

Let’s take a look at each of these double binds with an eye toward what anyone, as a new leader, can do to navigate them. To give you a sense of what it truly feels like on the front lines, each of the following sections leads off with a quotation from a real-life law firm leader (kept anonymous for reasons that will be obvious).

Access further information on how to tackle the "Top Five Double Binds" by following the link to the full article on Legal Evolution.

Author Patrick J. McKenna

Patrick J. McKenna

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