Leading When Positions Harden

Often in leadership, and especially where there are two people  involved, positions harden.  It may happen that you have increasingly adverse positions with:

  • Your boss on strategy or personnel
  • Your spouse on child-rearing
  • Your child on behavior and values

It can take a lot of energy, as you repeat the disagreements, and never quite resolve them. So, I offer a quick story; a paradigm-shifting concept; then a specific strategy.

The Story.  Jennifer and I took the past week off together, and it was great. On a plane back to Oakland, I was in the window seat, suddenly wistful, as we slowly descended over the Bay.  In 36 hours, it would be our youngest child Jack who would be staring out a plane window — heading to Rome for his first semester of college. Staring out the window, I streamed tears. The next morning in meditation, the sadness came again, AND then at one point, the feelings associated with the tears were BOTH distinctly sad AND simultaneously joyful.

The paradigm-shifting concept.  We are oddly wired to expect that we have ONE main feeling and thought about things.  So, you are sad OR happy; confident OR afraid; even tired OR energized. Yes, we use the word ambivalent. Or, we say, as if surprised, “I have mixed feelings.” We act like such a mix is rare, out of the norm.  Likewise, we think an idea is good OR bad.  A strategy is smart OR foolish. The paradigm shift that I would suggest is that the NORM is really that if we’re honest, we have mixed feelings and contradictory ideas almost all the time!  I remember how excited and exuberant I was about getting married, for example, but the pictures taken of me before the ceremony also show great fear. I find wonderful freedom to think that it’s perfectly normal to have mixed feelings or thoughts — in me, alone.

You may be thinking:  Wasn’t today’s RFL supposed to be about TWO people with hardened positions? And the answer is YES.  Thus,

The Specific Strategy:  When positions start to really harden with another person, begin by finding your sympathy inside yourself with their position. It’s almost always there.  For instance, you might feel your spouse (or your child who is now a parent) is just too lenient in child-rearing.  Or, just as easily, you can think someone on your team is just too “soft” in their expectations of the people who work for both of you.  Stepping back from your position, you see they think YOU are way too rigid.  So, step one is to find the ambivalence in yourself. Anyone with any sense knows that kids — from infant to eighteen — benefit from BOTH freedom and clear expectations. And workers need the same: understanding AND clear and high expectations.

The better you can appreciate the other’s viewpoint — because you can honestly see the concept in yourself — the better the chances YOU will also be heard by them.  The more you can cultivate your own appreciation for their views — before you even begin the next discussion with them – the better positioned you will be to have a conversation where you can hear them. And when you can really hear someone else, tell them genuinely that you appreciate the principle they are standing for with genuineness, the better your chances that they will hear you.  And the better you can think win-win, both seeing ideas not as “his” idea vs. “my” idea, but as ideas we can both appreciate.  And from there you can move to disciplined win-win thinking, because you both see the value in both points of view.

I am sad and joyful. And I am hopeful that allowing my ambivalence will allow Jack in this case to feel all he feels. That feels and seems like a good way to be real with another and create room for them to live and

lead with their best self.


  • Thank you, Dan! I needed this today… as a type A personality, I am always looking for the black or white “right” answer or feeling. Today, I am going to work on embracing the gray and the middle ground.

    • Megan,
      My pleasure. See my response to Jennifer, aka “the TIP lady” above. It’s a fascinating technique I’ve been using. It’s especially helpful when we’re ambivalent, because otherwise, our feelings keep canceling each other out, so we can’t get their “wisdom” nor “let them simply be.”
      Hope you’re great!!!

  • Dan,

    This is one of your best topics ever!!! I am moving toward retirement with both joy and apprehension. After almost 30 years of helping children and their families, guidance counselors, principals and administrators, community based organizations, churches, synagogues, etc., figure out how to get Free Money to Go To College and Teaching Financial Literacy I find it hard to let go.

    I had an Amazing Treasury Director, Andy Dillon and Chief Deputy Mary McDowell who shared and supported Governor Granholm’s vision of 100% high school graduation here in Michigan. Director Dillon even went out on the road to help launch our Financial Football initiative and Governor Synder committed to keeping our Financial Literacy efforts and FAFSA Completion for 80% of our High School Seniors. They even printed brand new materials for us to give out.

    They listened to my plea for more help! (I had essentially been Outreach all by myself speaking to over 100,000 kids each year) they even hired 4 new young and capable individuals for an Outreach TEAM. I was given everything I asked for!! So what is wrong with me? Fear of letting go? Will they do it as well as I do? Sure they will after a little more experience, probably even better. But I love the Mission Statement of Making A Difference. It was never a job for me it was and is my passion. Will they care enough? Work hard enough? Give enough?

    Is there a paradigm shift already in motion and I don’t realize it? I am really trying to cultivate and appreciate that 5 people can do more work than just one. This is one of those situations where I was given everything that I asked for and then…Why can’t I just be exuberant about it?


    • Jennifer,
      What a GREAT post. So, let me acknowledge both parts. First, how wonderful that you gave and gave for so long, and your enthusiasm was always so strong and so palpable. And how great that Andy Dillon saw the value and he and the Governor expanded the work.
      The second part is that divided part, right? So, one thought is to really listen to that other part, that doesn’t want to let go. Like have a long walk (or a journal walk) with “her,” as though she is an entirely whole person unto herself. Ask her what she feels, what she’ll miss, etc. Listen to her answers as you would a real person and respond with CURIOSITY (“tell me more”) and with Care (“I can see how hard that is”). I imagine that great feeling (a flood of tears?) may burst forth, and let her have that so-deserved moment, right? How hard it must be for “her” to let go. I would advise then asking, before you “finish” with her: What do you want to tell “the tip lady”? What do you want her to know?” I’d be curious what “she” might say!
      Thanks for sharing so openly and thanks so much for all your awesome work!

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