As someone who truly enjoys ideas, I find exploring the middle ground and all of its ambiguities natural and fun. Unfortunately, I also find it difficult to share these thoughts with others. I’ve always attributed this challenge to communication being one of my weaker skills, so it resonated with me when Lewis’ pointed out how language demonstrates our tendency for polarized thinking. Control or empowerment. Structure or flexibility. Stability or change. When we allow ourselves to lean one way or the other, we limit ourselves and our impact.
Take for instance the polarities of confidence and humility. If asked to define the two, people are likely to describe them as opposites. Confidence means attributing your own skills, traits, or contributions to outcomes, while humility means downplaying or even denying credit for your impact or influence. Leaders are often described as either confident or humble. Emerging leaders often find themselves asking how they want to be or how they want to be perceived. Do I want to be seen as confident so that people will trust my leadership more easily? Or will humility make me more approachable and gain me more approval?
The reality is that this either/or mindset does not accurately describe people, situations, or organizations, nor is it what people really need. Someone who is overly confident will likely be perceived as arrogant, while overdoing humility may lead people to doubt their authenticity or even their leadership. Instead, we can be BOTH confident AND show humility. We can give credit to the contributions of our team, and acknowledge the work we put into making sure teams are functional and fruitful. We can be honest about our shortcomings and worries, while assuring others that we will guide them through whatever obstacles lie ahead.
While we may not have the language to describe an integration of polarities, we can still break the patterns of binary thinking. Start by noticing when your thoughts are framed with “either/or.” Either I need to face reality or I need to have hope. Either I am an expert or I am a lifelong learner. I will lead with either candor or diplomacy. Then, consider what it would be like to be both things at the same time. How would this way of being fit in with who you are at your core? How might others connect with you if they saw your more complex identity? And what possibilities open up for you as a leader and for your team? We can be both awesome and human if we stop boxing ourselves in.