11 Polarities Wise Leaders Manage Well 

Barry Johnson, good friend, author of Polarity Management and creator of the conceptual leadership  method based on that model, has identified 11 polarities that great leaders manage well. If you are a leader at any level—or just need to lead your life—these will prove to be invaluable. Barry has given me  permission to adapt and share this with you. It comes from a client of his at LEGO. (See note below.)

What is a ‘polarity?’

Simply put, for Barry Johnson, a polarity is a set of poles or positions that appear to be opposites, creating an either/or situation. A few examples:

• “Should we manage from the top down, OR go for consensus?”

• “Should we raise our kids with unconditional love OR by showing them limits?”

• “Should I take care of myself OR the people around me?”

By turning such questions into an either/or formula, we miss the opportunity to use his creation, ‘polarity management,’ which would help keep us out of the morass that comes when one pole or position ‘wins.’ What happens when an organization does NOTHING BUT consensus—or top-down decision-making? Or to kids who are raised ONLY on unconditional love—or limits? Or to you if you ONLY take care of others? As Barry points out, when one pole dominates to the exclusion of the other, we start to experience the downside of that pole. Yes, as hard as it may be to admit, there is not only an up-side to your position, but a down-side as well, just as there is for the other position. Managing a polarity means holding the two poles in a dynamic tension and not letting either pole “win” to the exclusion of the opposite. You do not want the tension to go away. You want to utilize it, to keep the system benefiting from BOTH poles.

The 11 Leadership Polarities

Now that you understand the basic concept, look at the following polarities and see if it doesn’t make sense that a successful leader or organization will have access to both ways of operating. And can’t you see the danger in only doing one of these to the exclusion of the other?

1. Establishing close contact with subordinates (which enhances communication and trust) AND keeping a distance (which allows for objectivity in decision-making).

2. Being highly visible/leading the way (standing as a symbol for the mission and vision) AND receding into the background (helping others to step up and own the mission and vision).

3. Showing confidence in subordinates (trusts people and assumes their capability) AND holding people accountable (shows your interest in performance and allows you to give coaching).

4. Being open-minded and accepting of variation (shows tolerance for innovation and individualistic performance) AND being normative, requiring certain standards (keeps people doing things the way you want them done).

5. Fighting for your own unit (loyalty is a key to teamwork) AND going all out for company objectives (seeing the big picture can lead to greater motivation).

6. Tight scheduling of your time (makes for greater efficiency) AND being accessible for spontaneous moments (keeps you in touch with the rest of the world.

7. Being direct in expressing your opinions and feelings (people know where you stand and don’t have to guess) AND being diplomatic (restraint may be needed to smooth the path for what you want done).

8. Forgetting today (being a visionary, focusing on the possibilities leads to breakthroughs) AND forgetting tomorrow (tending to the knitting helps you address today’s problems).

9. Going for consensus (creates ownership and ensures greater follow through) AND making decisions quickly (cuts through the mess and avoids paralysis by a small unhappy group).

10. Being dynamic (drive and a sense of urgency are essential ingredients in high-performance) AND being prudent (thoughtfulness leads to more input in decision-making, avoiding impulsive mistakes). 11. Being self-assured (creates confidence in subordinates) AND being humble (avoids the pitfalls of arrogance).

Where do you land on each of these polarities? Which way do you ‘lean?’ (Everybody leans one way or the other.) Great leaders sense when it is time to lean the other way, and have developed both muscles, thus minimizing the downside of their preferred way of operating. Getting locked in to one pole to the exclusion of the other will sooner or later result in your downfall – and the polarization of the organization. 

My suggestion: show this to your key people and ask them how they see you operating! Listen and respond with appreciation, go off and lick your wounds, then look for opportunities to correct your ‘lean’ and right the ship again.

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