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There is a lot of leadership content out there, today. Mine included. A lot of it is really good. And a lot of it, not so much.

What makes the bad leadership content bad is that it makes leadership seem easy— either it is all Kumbaya and primarily focuses on soft skills, or emphasizes aggression, strength and winning through training and attitude.

But leadership is extremely complex. And effective leadership entails several principles that are often in conflict, often contradictory, and often contrasting.

That’s where the paradox lies.

What do I mean when I say harmonize the paradox?

As I reflect on the unique leadership traits I want to amplify today, they are leading with grace and leading with strength. Grace as a leadership trait is often misunderstood. Strength can also be misunderstood when it is confused with authority vs. influence.

Leading with both grace and strength may sound simple. But in fact, they are revealed in the art and constant act of harmonizing the contradictory principles that come with leadership. When you can take those principles that are incompatible and make them work together in concert- that is harmonizing the paradox of grace and strength.

Leading with Grace

It’s evident many leaders are not asking themselves, ‘How can I lead with grace?’ Or for that matter, a lot of leaders do not know what leading with grace actually means.

Simply put, leading with grace is about showing deep value and respect for the individual. Individuals want to be a part of something bigger than themselves, where they are treated with respect and value.

Grace is not soft, it has conviction and humility. Grace is not situational, it is demonstrated in small private moments when the light of the world is upon you. More importantly, grace is an endearing core value that followers look for as they define you as a leader.

So what does it actually look like to lead with grace and strength? I’d like to answer that question with a story.

Trash Cans

I call this story ‘Trash Cans,’ primarily because I was literally taken out to the trash cans by the vice chairman of Walmart, Inc.

He and his leadership team had just been asked to take over the Sam’s Club division and had completely swung the strategic pendulum. The decision was made that we should focus on small business members. In fact, this was going to be the singular focus of our division.

During a financial action committee meeting not long after this transition, when it was clear that I was acting as if I was not aligned with his vision, he called me out. He called me out and said, “Swanson, meet me outside.”

So there we were, standing in the alleyway by the trash cans where he began to ream me out.

He looked right at me and said, “What is it about ‘in business for small business’ that you don’t understand? I’ve been very clear about my expectations and you are a senior executive with this division! I don’t understand what you don’t get about being in business for small business.”

I started to explain, but it was pretty clear that there wasn’t going to be any explaining. Or, at least an explanation that he would find even close to satisfactory.

He ended the “conversation” by saying, “I want to hear back from you in 24 hours. Are you on the team? Or are you off the team?!”

After a long night of contemplation about my future, how I would feed my family, and soul searching, I went into his office the next day and said, “I am on the team. And you can count on me. I will be in business for small business. And I believe in this business and this team.”

But I said something else to him. I said, “What I hope you will understand is that when I bring something to you, that you will know that I have a reason and aligned purpose behind it.”

Later that year, that same vice-chairman gave me my performance review.

And he said to me, “Celia, that was the day I knew you were going to be OK. I knew you were going to be OK when you came back to me and said I’m on the team and here is why.”

A few lessons to share from this experience:

Face into your reality – Yes, leadership (and leaders themselves) can often be contradicting. And if you wait for the pendulum to balance itself, you’ll be waiting for a long time. It’s important to face into your most seemingly impossible situations while you’re in the arena. When I went back to the office of that Vice Chairman of Walmart Inc. after the trash cans – I didn’t turn in my letter of resignation. If I had tossed in the towel and said, ‘I don’t have to put up with this and I’m not working under these conditions,’ I would have completely missed out on discovering what I was really made of as a leader.

Know your Bright Lines – Balancing the paradox of grace and strength requires an ability to stay true to your values while also adapting to disruptive behavior. Knowing your bright lines requires you to be comfortable sharing what you need while also showing respect for others. My trash can moment required me to have the ability to harmonize my respect for my vice chairman’s vision with the need to also lead for myself. That’s why I told him I am on the team while also expressing what I hoped for and, frankly, needed from him. More importantly, I didn’t forget what I stood for and how that would work with the new leadership team and vision.

Choose the path less taken – Leading with grace and strength requires taking the high road, which is often a road less traveled. Don’t wait to have gracious leadership demonstrated to you but instead be prompt about showing it to others – no doubt, it will reap its rewards in character building and leadership growth!

Dare to lead as you are – Finally, I hope this post encourages you to dare to lead as you are. Being authentic is core to being gracious and strong. You were chosen to be in your role for a reason at this very moment in time. Have confidence in yourself and stand tall with that conviction.

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