Marianne Lewis of Lindner College of Business, University of Cincinnati: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Assumptions — shift our assumptions to embrace the positive potential of tensions and change the question from do I do A or B to how could I accommodate A and B. Recognize that tensions can be a source of strength, learning and opportunity.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Marianne Lewis.
Marianne W. Lewis is dean at the Lindner College of Business, University of Cincinnati, previously dean at Cass Business School, London. Renowned for her research on tensions and competing demands surrounding leadership, her latest book Both/And Thinking is published by Harvard Business Review.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My work in this area started with my PhD. I was studying automation in factories. At the time there was much debate over whether technology supported humans or was dehumanizing work; and whether the goal was flexibility or control of manufacturing. I started diving deeper into the nature of tensions, finding inspiration from studies of paradoxes. I found that life is full of interwoven contradictions — love/hate, today/tomorrow, stability/change, yin and yang. Yet further I found that the problem isn’t tensions, it is how we respond to tensions.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Senior professors told me — do NOT study or even talk about paradoxes in business. They are too abstract and confusing. What people really want is to be told how to get to a clear, consistent and best decision. They called my work TOO RISKY. That was great learning. I took that risk, and continue to learn the traps of either/or thinking. That seeking a clear, consistent and best decision can lead to false security, overcommitment and polarization. In contrast, I’ve studied remarkable leaders and firms that apply both/and thinking. Through this approach they embrace tensions and find more creative and lasting solutions. When I met my Both/And Thinking co-author, Wendy Smith, she was experiencing a similar PhD experience, and also chose to take the riskier path. Our shared but separate experiences launched our careers, but also fueled our 20+ year collaboration.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My father has been a remarkable mentor and role model. I watched and learned as he navigated his own tensions — a great academic and leader, he valued theory and practice; a workaholic, he also treasured and prioritized his family; exceptionally confident and poised, yet humble and always learning.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
This was the question I asked when starting as Dean of the University of Cincinnati Lindner College of Business. We debated whether we served our students, academic fields, or employers. We answered ‘yes’ — clearly we serve all, but how and more importantly why? Together with faculty, staff, students and alumni we honed in our purpose — we empower business problem solvers. That energizes me every day. How can I help those I serve solve problems and enhance their lives, organizations, and our world?
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I try to practice both/and thinking myself as a leader. When I started in my prior dean role in London I walked into a significant challenge. Several faculty had raised concerns over gender pay equity. I was asked whether we should prioritize equity or meritocracy. Clearly I knew it had to be both — or any decisions taken would be even more problematic in the future. So we took both sides seriously, diving deeply into what equity means at the school and why it matters. Likewise, we did the same for merit, defining excellence and its variations. The results helped us clarify, even raise the bar for excellence, while ensuring that clarity enabled equity.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Yes, I’ve been there. But as leadership guru Warren Bennis wrote: leadership is forged in the crucible. To get through my toughest times, I take time to reflect on my past ‘toughest times’. They were always the moments where I learned and grew the most. That helps me to find gratitude for my challenges and more on.
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
There are many books I treasure. Yet I must say that one I have held dear to is Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. In fact, I keep the Theodore Roosevelt quote that she opens the book with on my desk. As a scholar of paradox, I love her insights into the paradox of bravery. That courage and vulnerability are two sides of the same coin — that we can only find and build our courage when we make ourselves vulnerable, and likewise must draw upon our deepest courage to be vulnerable. I turn to that often when dealing with very difficult conversations or speaking to a challenging audience. That insight helps me avoid getting defensive. Pretending to be brave by avoiding vulnerability results in the opposite of what I seek. Brown helps me remember that such defenses limit my ability to listen, build trust, and learn.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Care enough to work through the challenges. To me that means pausing to avoid making a quick either/or decision that oversimplifies the situation but might feel good in the short term. In the most challenging times, leaders need to seek out and listen to opposing views. Invite others to share their concerns and hopes and work together. Yet leaders also guide this process, using their care to provide boundaries that aim options toward higher goals. Care does not mean agreeing with all or a bland compromise, but it does mean ensuring the complexity and tensions are considered to get to a more creative and lasting decision.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I’ve found in my research and leadership that combining higher purpose and small wins helps foster morale. Higher purpose is vital to reminding people why we are working together and care about each other as well as the organization and our goals. Yet small wins also offer opportunities to celebrate individuals and teams for efforts that we too often can take for granted.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Remain focused on why you care about them enough to share the difficult news. Tough love is a powerful and paradoxical concept that goes well beyond parenting
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
In Both/And Thinking, we stress the need to learn ‘tightrope walking’. This analogy illustrates the need to keep looking to the horizon and moving forward. When navigating tensions, we find that leaders and individuals do best when they know they might need to lean to different sides at different times, but must avoid going too far to an extreme. Keeping a view on the higher purpose and longer-term goals helps confront persistent paradoxes. And since we do not know what tomorrow holds, tightrope walking keeps us experimenting, reflecting and learning through the changes.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The problem isn’t the problem, the problem is how we approach the problem (Stanford psychologist Watzlawick). Either/or thinking is a trap. It can feel comforting in the short-term but get us stuck in ruts that create bigger challenges ahead. In contrast, both/and thinking helps us embrace tensions, value their opposing and interwoven pressures, and find more creative and lasting solutions.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
In our research, Wendy and I find that tensions spark defensiveness that leads us to want to make a decision. But making an either/or choice can add to our problems. We see several related mistakes that fuel vicious cycles in organizations.
- Psychology studies show us again and again how we prefer stability and consistency over uncertainty and change. Once we make a choice, we often want to maintain consistency. We then become so ingrained in how we do something that we become stuck in a rut (sticking with a once successful strategy or product until the market has been disrupted and our organization is in decline).
- We stay where we are until something drastic forces us to change. This tendency usually leads us to overcorrect, swinging the pendulum to the opposite alternative and triggering an ongoing vicious cycle (pendulum swing becomes a wrecking ball). If you are a dieter, you might have experienced these pendulum swings between dieting and indulging and then dieting again. Organizations often face swings between too much and not enough innovation.
- In conflicts, we can dig in and spark trench warfare, each polarized fighting from our opposing ruts. In politics, we see these swings between more conservative and more liberal policies.
Ultimately, either/or thinking can lead us down a vicious cycle that swings between alternative options — a long and windy road, with lots of chaos along the way.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Through 25 years of research, we’ve found key tools to help leaders navigate paradoxes — the tensions and competing demands intensified in turbulent times. We call this the Paradox System:
- Assumptions — shift our assumptions to embrace the positive potential of tensions and change the question from do I do A or B to how could I accommodate A and B. Recognize that tensions can be a source of strength, learning and opportunity.
- Boundaries — Think about separating and connecting opposing elements; separate to dive into the values and strengths of each side as well as their limits; connect by identifying their synergies and how they can support each other.
- Comfort — Become comfortable in the discomfort of tensions; the emotions we feel when confronting tensions can be a valued spark of creative friction and energy; yet the initial discomfort can also push us to lean into our favorite side and make a tradeoff, either/or decision for short-term comfort
- Dynamic — Be willing to live in the dynamism; this is not about finding a balance or compromise, but rather learning balancing; to not simply choose but know you are always choosing (moving forward with a decision, reflecting, learning and adapting).
- Navigating Paradoxes is Paradoxical — stepping back to view the 4 tools above, note their own paradoxes. That navigating paradoxes requires managing your head (assumptions) and your heart (emotions); nurturing stability (boundaries) and change (dynamism).
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
‘If you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking. You might find a new solution.’ — Maya Angelou. Too often we become paralyzed or polarized by the way we think about a problem. If we seek meaningful, positive and lasting change, it will require a new way of thinking.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Book site: https://bothandthinking.net/
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Marianne Lewis of Lindner College of Business, University of Cincinnati: Five Things You Need To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.