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Occasionally, a new word or phrase breaks out of the confines of the business world and into the cultural conversation. Paradigm shift and synergy had their day. Then sustainability and resilience. More recently, agile and lean seem to be everywhere. Often, the word comes out of genuinely original thinking and can stimulate new practices. Without care, however, it can quickly spiral into overuse and achieve buzzword status.
There’s a word that is unlikely to join this list, though it accurately captures and communicates the essence of today’s leadership challenges. It is the common conjunction and.
The complex issues with which executives wrestle today — global supply chains, multigenerational workforces, and political polarization and instability, to name a few — are not solved through simple bifurcated choices. They require more nuanced thinking. And can provide the needed stimulus.
The first person to bring the power of and to my attention was my colleague, Leonard Marcus, founding codirector of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard. Whenever I sent an article or book chapter related to our shared work on crisis leadership to Marcus to review, it would come back with each but crossed out and replaced with and. He explained that over his many years of researching and teaching negotiation and conflict resolution, he had discovered a certain magic in and because it subtly reframes whatever topic is on the table.
For example, imagine that a direct report asks for permission to work from home two days a week. If you respond, “I understand your desire, but I need to ensure coverage in the office,” there is an implied denial of the request. An alternate reply of “…and I need to ensure coverage” is an invitation to mutually solve a problem. The shift of one word acknowledges each person’s interests as legitimate and recognizes that there are issues to be resolved. It creates an environment for positive dialogue.
Another instance in which and asserted itself was in an ongoing conversation about the evolving meaning of leadership with cognitive anthropologist Bob Deutsch. In his recent book The Five Essentials: Using Your Inborn Resources to Create a Fulfilling Life (Avery, 2013), Deutsch argues that in our tumultuous times, leaders must embrace paradox. The imperial executive was better suited to simpler times; now, “everything seems to contain inherent contradictions and ambiguities,” he told me. Deutsch asserts that we are in the “age of and.”
For example, leaders are expected to be both mythic — having answers that elude average people — and simultaneously approachable. In the past, this was often an either/or decision. Additionally, contemporary leaders are expected to craft a singular, compelling vision while also being inclusive and welcoming contributions to defining the way forward. They must embrace these two “crosscutting paradoxes” to succeed, Deutsch explains.
The increasing prevalence of companies seeking to create both social and financial value also presents an and lesson. Milton Friedman’s theory on the social purpose of corporations was clearly predicated on an either/or choice between profit and social good: It was a zero-sum game with profit the only logical choice. That was then — in the 1970s, engagement would be found more often in a newspaper’s social pages than in its business section. Many companies operated within regional or national geographic constraints. The telephone and postal service were the primary connections between companies, suppliers, and customers.
When you seek to involve employees and communities as well as customers, and will open more doors than but.
Today, there is a different zeitgeist. Whether it’s called shared value, higher ambition, or conscious capitalism, these emerging approaches are centered on a belief in and as an economic imperative, a source of competitive advantage, and a key for engaging a wide range of stakeholders. What once seemed like an impossible paradox can now be reconciled with and.
Joshua Cooper Ramo’s book The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks (Hachette, 2016) provides another example. Ramo posits that the essence of power in our highly interconnected, networked world is concentration and distribution. A dominant search engine, for example, concentrates the largest collection of data on its servers and must attract a large number of users who help it refine its algorithms (and generate advertising revenue). Each side of the equation is dependent upon the other, “encased in a powerful and dynamic tension.”
The and lesson for leaders here is to again embrace the paradox and move beyond simply amassing authority. Build a leadership platform that facilitates independent yet aligned participation and connection by the nodes in your network. When you seek to involve employees and communities as well as customers, and will open more doors than but. Confronted with complex challenges, dynamic markets, and fast-changing technologies, and is not only more powerful than or — it may be the only option for dealing with the multiplicity of factors involved.
As you lead, try substituting and for but as often as possible. Note what opportunities for collaboration and novel solutions emerge. When contemplating your next strategic move, think about and instead of or. See what new perspectives this generates. And is one small word that can make a big difference in the way you think and lead.