Saturday, January 11, 2014

Polarities of leadership

To me, leadership is primarily about achieving the optimal balance between the various polarities in organizational life.

You are a leader if you can find the right balance between polarities like
  1. Being confident & making a vulnerable connection
  2. Providing hope & being realistic
  3. Driving change & maintaining stability
  4. Shaping the organization culture (and the definition of 'good' in the organization) & adjusting to the organization culture
  5. Taking too much risk & taking too little risk
  6. Focusing on the long term & responding to immediate challenges
  7. Taking charge & letting others take charge
  8. Maintaining a broad perspective & developing micro-awareness
  9. Being consistent & being  flexible
  10. Organization building & creative destruction
  11. Acting based on who you are as an organization & acting based on what the environment demands
  12. Holding on & moving on
The ‘right balance’ is highly context specific. It is also a dynamic balance/equilibrium as opposed to a static one(In a state of static equilibrium there is balance, but no change or movement - that exists in the case of dynamic equilibrium.  For example, a chair has static equilibrium while a bicycle in motion has dynamic equilibrium). Again, the equilibrium point is an evolving one - based on the evolution of the leader, followers and the organization.

All in all, it is quite a moving target & that is why it is so difficult to ‘train in’ leadership. While useful inputs/helpful experiences/coaching can be provided, leadership capability emerges in a non-linear fashion in the being of a person based on years of struggle with the polarities mentioned above! Of course, all the organizational issues are not ‘polarities’ and  one of the necessary conditions for leadership to emerge is the ability to differentiate between ‘a polarity to be managed’ & ‘a problem to be solved’!!

So, what do you think? If the 'work of leadership' is conceptualized mainly as 'achieving dynamic balance between polarities in organizational life', what does it mean for (a) leaders, (b) for team members (c) for organizations & (d) leadership development?

Note:  Since we have defined the work of leadership in terms of  'achieving optimal balance between polarities in organizational life', it would be interesting look at this 'optimal balance' in more detail. It is not about 'compromise' between the two poles (like a consistent score of 3 in a 1 to 5 scale-with 1 representing one pole and 5 representing the other). It is more about being a '1', '2', '3', '4' or '5'  based on the situation. Strangely, it also involves  transcending the scale by (as Pirsig says) catching the bull (polarity) by both its horns (poles) & even singing the bull to sleep. It is not about being 'timid' and avoiding strong decisions/behavior. It is about the ability to display a wide spectrum of responses and the courage to choose the appropriate response based on the situation. The courage also involves the willingness to explain why a particular choice was made in a particular situation - so that the behavioral flexibility won't become confusing to the team (i.e. variation in responses has to be accompanied by consistency at the level of underlying principles of choosing particular responses in a particular situations & these principles have to be communicated to the team - otherwise this flexibility will come across as inconsistency). Yes, this also involves taking feedback/admitting one's mistakes and revising one's mental map when required. Deep understanding & trust about the leader (i.e. understanding 'who he is' in terms of the principles governing his actions) - developed over a period of time - will obviate the need to explain everything every time! It is said that 'sometimes, who you are speaks so loudly that people can't hear what you are saying'!

Developing this kind  of behavioral range, that too across the many polarities in organizational life, takes a lot of development (psychological/spiritual growth) on the part of the leader. Please note that displaying a wide range of behaviors can put a lot of pressure on the leader's psyche as it involves  'holding multiple sets of diametrically opposite ideas in the mind at the same time' and constantly adjusting the balance/(as it is about dynamic balance as opposed to static balance). Yes, this development/growth (like all psychological growth) can be taxing as it demands regularly stretching one's boundaries. No -this does not mean that there is no room for the natural self/style of the leader, as it is about expanding the self as opposed to developing towards some (standard) 'ideal self'. Yes - it usually takes significant amount of time. But, we need to keep in mind that this development is a matter of degree & that different people learn at different speeds. So, investing in increasing one' ability to 'derive learning/growth from experience' becomes critical - especially for young leaders!!