A number of years ago I read a book where a political advisor, in speaking about a particular politician, commented that “His favorite color is plaid.” It was not meant as a compliment.
I chuckled when I first read that line, as was the author’s intent, but it also stuck in my mind (unlike much of the rest of the book . . .), and over the years I have come to believe that some of the most impactful leadership efforts succeed because they are able to incorporate a range of perspectives, like a finely-woven plaid. Let me use my paternal family tartan as an example of what I am talking about.
The ancient Duncan tartan is primarily composed of shades of blue and green, cool colors that overlap and blend easily. They are in close proximity on the color wheel, much like weaving together the input of team members who are all heading in the same direction, shooting for the same goal, but starting from slightly different perspectives (say, green for an operational viewpoint and blue using a product/program lens).
In addition to the blue and green background, woven throughout the design are thin but obvious lines of black and white. Those are the non-negotiables for which we won’t blend or bend . . . the values or mission from which we will not deviate. These are not the dominant colors of the pattern (we don’t feel the need to beat you over the head with them), but are clearly visible and a critical element in the overall design. And then there is the red. The firey spark from the other side of the color wheel that is none-the-less acknowledged and accommodated throughout the design. In fact, the plaid stands out more for having incorporated this “opposing” color, just as our own efforts become both more striking and appealing to a broader audience for the willingness to incorporate what is, ultimately, a very different but complementary color.
As leaders, we are so often encouraged to carve out a single position and stand strong. Pick one color, black or white or purple, and stick with that. Unfortunately, the situations which with we are faced today can rarely be best answered with a black or white response — at least not if we want to have a lasting impact on the ultimate goal. It takes a blending of perspectives and experiences, layers of color, and an acknowledgement of what each brings to the table, to weave together the design of a lasting solution.
Tartans have survived for centuries and are still going strong. Maybe to solve today’s toughest problems we should all consider weaving together a bit of leadership plaid.