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When people rise to a supervisory position, they often struggle immediately with whether they can remain friends with the folks they have been working with or must distance themselves. Perhaps less recognized initially, but equally important, is the struggle between being a specialist-expert, highly knowledgeable in the tasks and subject matter they have excelled at, or becoming more of a generalist, leaving narrower knowledge to their team.

“Leadership is about finding the balance between the opposing qualities that are required to lead in the situation at hand. However, finding this balance is rarely as simple as finding the ‘middle ground',” notes Sean Hanrahan, a strategist with a utility in Melbourne, in a Medium post.

Often the middle ground is a “no-man’s land”, he says, a compromise designed to prevent disagreement. While either extreme of the two opposing qualities will rarely be effective, most situations require us to lean one way or another. Context is important: “Sometimes the only thing that separates a virtue from a vice is context,” he writes. That suggests we need to avoid consistency – tempting as that seems – and focus on context. As Ralph Waldo Emerson warned: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

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Mr. Hanrahan highlights three essential opposing qualities to balance:

  • To be collaborative yet authoritative: The world is a complex place and one individual’s perspective is rarely enough to make a good decision. “However, there are times when collaboration does not serve the needs of the group and the leader is required to push forward without consensus or consultation,” he advises.
  • To be compassionate while remaining detached: Leaders should minimize the influence of their emotions when making decisions, but they also must be attuned to their own emotions and that of their team.
  • To be humble yet confident in your own ability: Leaders should be humble enough to recognize when they should defer to the expertise of others and readily admit when they are wrong. However, they also need the confidence at times to make decisions that run counter to the opinions of others.

Mr. Hanrahan credits the book, The Dichotomy of Leadership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin for inspiring his thoughts in the post.

In their book, Mr. Willink and Mr. Babin raise other tensions managers face. The first – the bottom line of leadership – is to care about your people more than anything but at the same time lead them. “And as a leader, you might have to make decisions that hurt individuals on your team. But you also have to make decisions that will allow you to continue the mission for the greater good of everyone on the team,” they write.

On the Leading Blog, Michael McKinney shares some other tensions from that book:

  • To own it all but empower others: This is about micromanagement versus hands-off leadership. You need to take – but also give – ownership.
  • To be resolute but not overbearing: “There is a time to stand firm and enforce the rules and there is a time to give ground and allow the rules to bend. Leaders must set high standards but they cannot be domineering or inflexible on matters of little strategic importance,” the book advises.
  • When to mentor, when to fire: The authors suggest that most underperformers don’t need to be fired but must be led. At the same time, team performance trumps individual concern.
  • Discipline, not rigid: Rigid rules can stifle creativity. The team needs disciplined operating procedures, which can give freedom to manoeuvre.
  • Being a leader and also being a follower: Failing to show good ability as a follower can ruin your leadership.

Business coach Rick Snyder adds a crucial polarity in his book, Decisive Intuition, arguing that, in an era of big data and artificial intelligence, intuition is vitally needed in decision-making to balance the scientific impulse with humanity and emotional intelligence. Intuition reflects our experiences and intelligence. “It’s time for intuition to be respected as a deeper source of intelligence that enhances our everyday decision-making,” he writes.

Let me add two more. In hiring, whether to pick for immediacy or potential, the specific post or the future possibilities. In filling positions, whether to go with the people you know (and their already recognized faults) or opt for new people from outside whose faults are not as apparent.

Often we think of successful management requiring certain special qualities. But our focus on the contradictions of management suggests that we need those qualities and their alternatives, in the right balance.

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Cannonballs

  • Generally we try to describe our organizational culture with a simple adjective, such as innovative, collaborative or customer-focused. But the Gartner advisory agency says that usually ignores the fact our culture deviates from what we aspire to. It recommends describing your culture with the important tension at the heart of it, such as “we support a culture of innovation while continuing to seek growth and profits from legacy businesses.”
  • Consultant Wally Bock offers three trade-offs leaders must consciously address: People versus task, efficiency versus innovation, and today versus tomorrow.
  • Find out more about team members by asking “what do you miss most about the jobs you have had in the past", Tracy Byham and Richard Wellins, authors of Your First Leadership Job, recommend.

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