Leadership is a balancing act

My 16-year-old daughter Emma bounded into my bedroom and hopped on my bed where I was winding down for the night. “How was youth group?” I asked. “Great!” she replied. I asked her what made it great and she said that they talked about whether you can be a good friend by focusing more on truth or on love in your relationships. “Well, what did you learn?” I asked. “You can’t choose one or the other,” Emma said with a big smile, “you have to choose both!” She went on to say that you can’t just share a hard truth with a friend, you have to do it with care and concern….or with love. And conversely, you can’t just express care for someone and avoid telling them something that could help them, because it might be difficult.

Wow! That is one of the lessons I often share with leaders. Whether it is choosing truth and love, or candor and diplomacy, leadership is a balancing act. To be an effective leader, you often have to manage two seemingly opposite, but interdependent alternatives (aka polarities). Here are some examples of leadership polarities that all leaders must manage well:

  • Candor and Diplomacy
  • Guidance and Tolerance
  • Confidence and Humility
  • Grounded and Visionary
  • Structure and Flexibility
  • Control and Empowerment

With my own leadership, I find that I manage some of these polarities extremely well without having to think about it. It just comes naturally. You might look at the list above and come to the same conclusion about yourself.

With other polarities, I need to work harder on managing them. That’s the case with candor and diplomacy. I’m a pretty straightforward, frank person. I often favor candor over diplomacy, especially with those whom I know well. But I also recognize that if I choose to be brutally honest, it could break down trust with the people I lead at work.

At those times, when I am tempted to be overly candid, I recognize the need to pause and ask myself:

  1. How can I convey my concern or perspective while maintaining the relationship?
  2. What can I say that will help the recipient of my feedback feel valued?

On the other hand, I tend to use more diplomacy with those I know less well or who are positioned higher in an organization than I am. In some situations, I have found myself holding back from expressing an opinion. At those times, I need to ask myself:

  1. Am I holding back on sharing a valid viewpoint because I’m afraid of what that person will think of me?
  2. Will I erode trust with others, because they sense that I am not forthcoming with my opinion or with valuable information?

I know that to be truly effective as a leader I have to choose BOTH candor and diplomacy and manage them well.

When you look at the list of polarities above, is there one that seems to require more work from you to manage well?

If so, what questions can you ask yourself in order to manage it better?

To read more about polarities, see Barry Johnson’s work on polarities at: http://www.polaritypartnerships.com/

In addition, our Talent Management team offers a half-day seminar on managing polarities: http://www.hr.mnscu.edu/training_and_development/AdministratorDevelopment/Administrator_Dev.html We wrapped up a seminar on polarities at Itasca Community College in November and will be scheduling another one in early 2013. We’ll keep you posted!

Anita Rios




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