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Dec 11, 2012

Balance finally gaining recognition in leadership

Balance is often misunderstood as it applies to leadership

By Dave Crisp

Even people who appreciate the usefulness of balance are sometimes at a loss to find it.

A key first step is just recognizing the opposite values in any paradox. These surround us constantly, because we’d all like to have everything pretty much both ways — having our cake and eating it too.

Oddly, we often can... if we’ve learned to view things the right way for that very purpose.

Many researchers (and philosophers) have written about balance among paradoxes or opposites or contradictory views. Still it is rare to see it in mainstream management advice. Hooray for McKinsey & Company’s latest Quarterly with a new article (no cost registration) entitled "Leadership and the art of plate spinning."

The title is a giveaway — juggling is a great analogy for balancing paradoxes in the midst of action.

McKinsey’s article is clear about four leadership paradoxes. (There are plenty more, but these are biggies).

They explain how "change can be managed more easily in organizations that keep some things stable" (don’t try changing everything at once, find a balance).

Second they note successful organizations usually both "empower and control their employees."

Despite my railing against command and control as an exclusive solution, every organization needs broad, clear controls since these actually stabilize an environment of creative freedom.

Third, the article highlights that business cultures need to foster both "consistency and variability."

Finally, in a fourth paradox, they point out that senior leaders in organizations have to "constantly intervene to encourage the sorts of behavior (freedom of creativity) that align an organization with its top priorities" (meaning they have to push people toward thinking independently so they will risk trial and error — behaviors that lead to innovation).

All these highlight inconsistencies or paradoxes that at first seem irresolvable. And they are — or at least they are for people who take everything literally, as clear cut either/or issues. But there is a way of looking at them where you see the value in both opposing ideas and make use of parts of both to create a both/and solution that is better than either of the alternatives alone. This blending or balancing is essential to the best solutions and is very often the stuff from which the most powerful leaders construct their objectives.

Many would-be leaders don’t want to hear they should "push freedom," "be constant in pressing for variability," "constrain freedom and variability" and "hold things constant, so change can occur."

The contradictions involved call for judgment, reflection, and, frequently patience — all difficult objectives for leaders who try to manage everything themselves, such as entrepreneurs who are anxious to forge headlong into new territory and think they can just give orders. To be most effective you can’t "just do" anything in leadership. “Just do it” may work for you alone, but it doesn’t work well as an instruction to staff.

To get innovation going or to encourage staff to treat customers the way they want to be treated (goals we often hear companies want, but seldom see in action), you have to keep a frame around what people do. If they’re in charge of their own budgets, they can judge for themselves how much they can offer a customer in repairs or special deals that the customer wants. But will they? Clearly there is judgment involved in balancing the opposites: Give away too much and you will go broke, give away too little and your customer won’t return (and you’ll go broke). Spend too much or too little on innovation and similar problems await.

Because we’re constantly faced with these judgment calls, we have to delegate them down the line as far as we can. Ideally every leader and even every staff member in an organization will exercise great balance in every situation. But that won’t happen without training, coaching, continual discussion, examples and reminders from leaders who walk this talk themselves every day.

And you can’t unless you yourself see the value in the two opposing values, and that often means you have to see ways to apply it in your own life. So finding balance is an every day, every situation challenge, not only in one’s own personal life by in our efforts to lead and manage others.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit
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