What is Healthy Tension?

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As a leader, have you ever found yourself trying to solve any of these problems?

Being Optimistic vs. Being Realistic
Embracing Change vs. Preserving Stability
Being Profit Focused vs. Purpose Driven
Having Expectations vs. Extending Grace
Caring for Others vs. Caring for Yourself
Building Confidence vs. Remaining Humble

What if the real problem is assuming these situations are solvable in the first place?  Successful leaders understand that these are not problems to solve, but instead, tensions to manage.

The transformational skill of leadership is to hold opposites in tension ... It makes us better leaders, better partners and even better parents.


Take a deep breath and say, ‘hey, both of these things can be true’. And that energy that we create holding opposite things (in tension) is the birthplace of transformation. The ability to straddle paradoxes really leads to transformation. Not only are tensions OK and normal — they're the magic sauce.


As a leader, it can feel like you’re fighting an uphill battle against broken systems, impossible demands, and unreasonable people. Great leaders like Barack Obama and Brené Brown have all discovered a simple and practical way to avoid becoming jaded and bitter, or even worse, throwing in the towel altogether. The secret is to move beyond your traditional problem: solving approach and embrace the transformational power of being able to hold things in tension!

How do you do this? It’s not as hard as you think. Tensions are 100% predictable. Here are the 5 truths about tension that every leader needs to understand in order to succeed:

    1. Tensions are Unsolvable
      Although the problem solver in you is going to want to find the right answer and make the tension disappear, don’t be fooled! 

      Successful leaders know that there are no 5-Habits, 7-Steps, or silver-bullet ideas that will solve the dilemma. It will be something you have to deal with as long as you are leading. The question is not, “Have I solved this?”, instead it is, “Is this healthy or unhealthy?”.
    2. Choosing One Side Won’t Work for Long 
      Again, although the problem solver in you yearns to choose a side and move on, this will backfire, every time. It’s because the two sides of a tension are interdependent, meaning one side requires the other in order to be healthy.

      Successful leaders know that focusing on one side of a tension to the neglect of the other side, will always undermine their vision and values. For example, overdone change to the neglect of stability will result in chaos and confusion. Overdone stability to the neglect of change will result in becoming stagnated and outdated.
    3. There’s Wisdom in Resistance
      The problem solver in you will dislike resistance by default. It assumes that if someone resists your thoughts, ideas or values, they simply don’t understand– or worse – they’re against you.

      Successful leaders know, however, that when you’re holding things in tension, someone who sees the situation from a different point of view has a perspective you need. Knowing that our blind spots can lead to vulnerable or even dangerous decision-making, the best way to move from seeing things from our limited point of view to understanding the whole truth, is through the challenge, resistance, and push-back of others.
    4. It’s Not About Compromise
      A problem-solving approach is all about winning, losing or if necessary, compromising. However, compromising assumes you have to give up something on both sides and meet somewhere in the middle, resulting in a lesser, watered-down version of each side’s values.

      Successful leaders don’t settle for compromise, but instead, find a way to gain all the values of both sides over time. For example, you aren’t interested in having some of the values of embracing change and some of the values of preserving stability. You lead in a way that gets all the benefits of both.
    5. There’s Power in the Word “AND
      Problem-solvers love to use the word “but” (and if you’re a polite Canadian like me, “however” is the same thing). This means that when someone sees things from an opposite perspective that pushes back against our ideas, “but” is likely the first word out of our mouth. Unfortunately, the word “but” is one of the most polarizing words in the English language – pushing people away and making them feel like you are against them.

      Successful leaders choose to use the word “and” instead. “And” forces you to slow down your thinking, helps the other person to realize you’re not against them, and it builds a bridge in your conversation instead of a wall.

Your work is important, and right now, the world needs your leadership more than ever. Join successful leaders from around the world who have the courage to move beyond problem solving and tap into the power of healthy tension. Learn how to successfully do the work you love while enjoying the life you lead.

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