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The Paradox of Success

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We are wired to be goal-striving creatures who quest for the prize: the corner office with a breathtaking view, the new BMW 7 series, the prom queen with a Harvard MBA, the staggering bonus, seat 2A, the hole in one.

But the past few decades have been unkind to our definitions of "winning." Our politics are arm-wrestled by pragmatists eager to appear on "Meet the Press," who fear change and would rather tweak policy at the shadowy edges. In management we hunger for new ideas and inspiration from the parallel streams of business authors and wily gurus, and we are, too often, left undernourished.

Nothing seems to last. Few leaders have the grit, gusto or runway to stick with an Idea and to shape it into a compelling invitation to new behavior and beliefs; even fewer have the skill to support and sustain a bold Idea through the awkward and fragile moments of connection with first practice, commerce, revenue, and growth.

Consequently, we are left to sitting on the fence. To lead, indeed to live, is to accept that much of what we do is inherently paradoxical, with elements that are often contradictory, even mutually exclusive. So we straddle an idea instead of embracing it, and we avoid the tension inherent in paradox.

Paradox's chief champion is Charles Handy, the British writer whose 1994 book, The Empty Raincoat, was published in the US as The Age of Paradox. Handy argues that work becomes "worth doing economically if you can attract a price. But the more you put a price on work, the more that vital work...such as teaching...becomes unattractive."

I am teaching my Spring MBA Intensive on Personal Leadership for a smart and serious group of business and medical professionals at Creighton University. While I attempt to ground our conversation in the lessons of business and life change, inevitably the wiser of them
"get" that they have to live and lead in two different dimensions of time. They must nurture the present and at the same time create the future. In fact, they understand that they have to encourage several futures, rather than be prepared for none. They are multi-tasking themselves into exhaustion. Just as in philosophy, paradoxes exist to point up logical absurdities. It all leads to the frustrating reality that we are living without a GPS.

A wise friend and former colleague, John O'Neil, wrote The Paradox of Success: When Winning at Work Means Losing at Life, in 1993. His book was a landmark of sorts, for until then, we confidently pushed ahead fueled by the conviction that we could have it all. He coined the term "the long-distance leader" for the individual who, armed with self-awareness and the courage to confront and accept the "shadows" of their lives, was capable of becoming, in John's term, "shadow lighters."

It means going inside and working on our stories, on what we believe is true, and accept both the junk and the jewels.

But you don't have to look far to notice the hairline fissures of unease that comes with that premise. Could Tiger Woods be the world's best golfer and a philanderer? Could politicians like John Edwards deceive his wife, his closest advisors and the media for two years before finally admitting an affair and a child, all while his wife, Elizabeth, battles cancer?

You know the outcome.

It takes grace and guts to become self-aware, for it bursts our balloons of self-importance and the truths we have so carefully bound into our life story. The lessons of our practice with remarkable leaders confirms that truth telling and the paradoxes that follow are the beginning of leading and living an authentic life.

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