The craft of leadership cannot be divorced from the context in which leadership is exercised. The ability to lead effectively relies on a number of key skills and leaders have very different characteristics and styles. And because of or in spite of these very different characteristics, some leaders produce extraordinary achievements over their lifetime.

There is no one right way to lead in all circumstances, and good leaders are flexible and are able to adapt to the changing circumstances in which they find themselves. And those circumstances are much wider than just the workplace. Further, leaders have preferred styles, and their dominant style may not work for all teams or for all organisations.

People expect leaders to lead them. Leaders often struggle to balance the contradictory demands in broader social and work environments that are complex and ambiguous. Getting the balance right between the needs of the organisation, the needs of the individuals in the organisation, and the needs of the leader is a complex and challenging task. Beneath the surface are tensions that are not always appreciated or understood. In order to be successful, highly motivated and ambitious leaders have to balance 7 key leadership tensions:

  1. Leadership vs Management

    Too much management can leave people feeling unempowered. The boss is always looking over their shoulder. Too much visionary leadership won’t give the team the operational clarity and certainty they need. The one approach pulls people forward. The other pushes them from behind.

  2. Strategy vs Operations

    Too much focus on strategy can mean that the details of operations are neglected, and problems fall through the cracks. Team members may experience this as too much focus on a fuzzy future and too little on the specifics of the here and now. A hard focus on operations can mean a lack of focus on the bigger picture so that leaders miss the wider picture and fail to spot opportunities and threats. Team members may feel micromanaged.

  3. Execution vs Engagement

    Execution is about getting it done. Engagement is about taking the team with you. A hard focus on delivery can leave the team feeling unacknowledged and left out. Too much time on engagement and relationships builds happy teams but the tasks will suffer.

  4. Decisiveness vs Involvement

    A leader who takes over decision-making in areas where team members should take the decisions is going to disempower and immobilise the team. On the other hand, spending too much time seeking other opinions and exploring options from different points of view, can slow down the work process and can be seen as indecisiveness.

  5. Work vs Life

    Some leaders may work long hours and do what it takes to deliver on their responsibilities. Their jobs are all-consuming. This can be worsened if the leader is not skilled in delegating tasks to the rest of the team. Team members feel overworked and the leader’s home life and health suffers. Too much emphasis on lifestyle may mean that the leader is neglecting the key roles of leading and focusing and is not seen to be actively engaged in the organisation. A poor work/life balance, either way, can result in burnout and a loss of motivation.

  6. Leader vs Friend

    Drawing the line between being a friend and being the boss is difficult. Particularly with people who have worked together for a long period of time. A leader has to lead. And this means making decisions that are unpopular, and which put a strain on existing friendships. This is the loneliness of the leader. On the other hand, a leader who constantly tries to be popular is unlikely to be taken seriously and respected.

  7. Teamwork vs Developing Individuals

    Developing a good team is not the same as developing a group of individuals who work together. There is a blend of focusing on improving the overall team and at the same time even-handedly supporting and recognising individuals in a team.

Balancing 7 TensionsIt is not easy balancing the dynamics of these competing factors. And yet every leader has to face them head-on. There is no ideal middle ground that will work for all teams and for all situations.

It is helpful to take account of the lifecycles involved. Where is the organisation in its lifecycle?

A team of young folk may not mind working long hours for big rewards, because they enjoy the challenge. Older team members with family commitments may want a more predictable work environment and spend time with their families.

And then there is the leader of the team or the organisation. These leaders need to understand their natural preferences and consciously adapt their style to the context. To a large extent, it depends on how the leader sees him or herself. It is born out of a deeper sense of purpose and often may not be explicit. A greater deal of introspection is required to fully uncover this wisdom.

A starting point is to have a self-conversation on each of the leadership tensions listed above. The following questions will help to initiate the process:

What is my preferred style?
Am I comfortable with the opposite end of this style?
Are there some tensions I can’t or don’t want to resolve?
Can I, and do I want to learn to be more adaptable?

As you go deeper and deeper into this conversation, you will learn more about yourself, what you want from life, and the contribution you are willing to make. It will take time and courage but the rewards of a life well-lived are the best any human being can hope for. At Regenesys we call this spiritual intelligence. It is the journey of linking your personal sense of purpose with the organisation that allows you to actualise and live out that purpose.

The ultimate resolution of these tensions within your personal situation will result in a deeply fulfilling life, because you will have matched your unique style, and what you want in life, with the demands and opportunities of the organisation you lead.

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