A hand holding a lightbulb

Polarized Thinking


During a recent coaching session, one of my CEO clients had concerns about hints that he was picking up that he may be getting adverse reactions from community leaders regarding his high energy, gregarious style. The dialogue went as follows:

Coach: “If your perceptions are accurate, what could you do to modify these perceptions assuming that they could interfere with what you are trying to accomplish.” 

Client: “Well, that’s just who I am, don’t I have to be authentic?” 

Coach: “You are only being authentic when you are gregarious?”

Client: That’s me.

Coach: “You shared a story with me regarding two facility employees one of which had recently experienced a loss in their life. You described how you sat down, reached out to her with compassion and softly shared your condolences, correct?

Client: Yes.

Coach: “Which persona was authentic? The gregarious one or the soft, compassionate one?”

In our desire to simplify our world, we try to simplify things, and the easiest way to do that is through binary thinking. This process is called a false dilemma. It presents two opposing views – options or outcomes in such a way that they seem to be the only possibilities. Therefore, if one is true, the other must be false, or, more typically; if you do not accept the one then the other must be believed. Think about how we access ourselves – strengths/weaknesses, good/bad, strategic/not strategic, or, as above, gregarious/reserved.

Black-or-white thinking does not allow for the many different variables, conditions, and contexts in which there would exist more than just the two possibilities put forth. The assessments The Aware Leader uses for leadership development looks at 94 variables. Think about that…the factorial of 94 is 1.08736616 × 10146 representing the possible personality combinations. The chances of us being able to narrow down who we are too simple black-or-white deductions are very low.

So what does this mean? Do we have to sort out the factorial? The answer is no. However, we do need to be on a journey of self-awareness that allows us to understand that we have multiple personas that are in our reach that can help us be useful in the different situations we face every day as leaders. 

Think about this. Do you know people that, when under stress, they behave in ways that could disrupt relationships, damage reputations, and derail their chances of success? They are not like this all of the time, and maybe very infrequently; however, this darker side does emerge. If these people had a good understanding of how they can be during times of increased strain, could not they potentially be cognizant that choosing another persona that would serve them better? If so, could recognize and mitigate performance risks before they become a problem.

Knowing ourselves and avoiding polarized thinking opens us up to more choices about how we want, or can, show up as leaders. 

by Edgar A. Guest

I have to live with myself and so I want to be fit for myself to know,
I want to be able as days go by,
To look at myself straight in the eye.
I don’t want to stand with the setting sun
And hate myself for the things I’ve done.

I don’t want to hide on a closet shelf
A lot of secrets about myself,
And fool myself as I come and go
Into thinking that nobody else will know
What kind of man I really am;
I don’t want to dress myself in sham.

I want to go with my head erect,
I want to deserve all men’s respect
And in this struggle for fame and pelf
I want to be able to like myself.
I don’t want to look at myself and know
That I am a bluster and empty show.

I cannot hide myself from me;
I can see what others can never see;
I know what others can never know,
I cannot fool myself, and so

Whatever happens, I want to be
Self-respecting and conscience free.

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