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I learned the color of success on my first trip to Bali, Indonesia. The magical color of success is gray. My wife and I landed in Bali after speaking at conference in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. I had just given a keynote titled, “Flexible Authenticity”.

When we arrived in Bali, we noticed the three colors of black, white, and gray everywhere. The airport security staff wear a checked sarong. The street curbs are black and white. Statues and trees are draped in the three colored cloth. One truck was full of who men were completely clad in the same pattern. We wondered, what does it mean?

The Balinese believe we have both black and white in ourselves, and the balance of both sides creates the perfect (gray) life. Black is as opposite from white as you can get. Grey is the balance of both. The colors represent being able to reconcile contraries. Think justice and mercy; day and night; fast and slow; execution and planning, sweet and bitter, joy and sorrow. The best leaders can embrace seemingly contradictory leadership styles such as coercive and democratic,  affiliative and authoritative,  or pacesetting and coaching. It is about resisting extremes and embracing duality.

This idea aligns with the message of my keynote, “Flexible Authenticity.” Over one thousand studies agree on the one characteristic that determines a leader success. It is authenticity. The ability to build trust by being real, and genuine. There is a paradox to authenticity. Sometimes a flawed view of authenticity can inhibit success. It can prevent leaders from the balance needed to succeed. Think of the leader who must share their “truth” in every situation, regardless of the cost. Or the leader who waits too long confront bad behavior on the team to preserve harmony.

Leaders often struggle with behaviors they don’t feel are authentic to their personality. The assertive leader struggles to be supportive and the supportive leader may be uncomfortable being assertive. The outgoing encouraging and motivating leader may struggle to listen. The multitasking leader may struggle with focus and the detail minded; rule follower may struggle with flexibility. These seemingly opposite styles cause some to feel inauthentic. However, if we want to succeed in our various leadership roles and circumstances, we must be comfortable using our “black” and “white” traits.

This experience gave me a new appreciation for the color gray. As we learn to balance extremes, embrace opposites, we will be better able to have success, in our leadership roles and in our personal lives.

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