Both-And Leadership

“Both/And” Leadership: Don’t worry so much about being consistent
HBR May 2016, p62
By Wendy K. Smith, Marianne E. Lewis, Michael L. Tushman

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” The lack of such an ability may preclude one from understanding this article as it deals with tough subjects like polarities, referred to as paradoxes, and dynamic equilibrium. While the material covered here is well presented the reader would have benefitted from a longer, more detailed exposition.

Much has been written about polarities in business and how both sides of the paradox are valuable since they are dependent on each other. Both sides are important to the organization in the long term. One cannot choose one side of the paradox over the other but must, instead, manage the tension between them. Managing the tension requires holding a dynamic equilibrium and the balance between the two sides of the paradox will shift back and forth over time. What must be held is the average balance while keeping the standard deviation to a small value.

The article identifies three common paradoxes and the authors define each of them by a question: “Are we managing for today or tomorrow?”, “Do we adhere to boundaries or cross them?”, and “Do we focus on creating value for our shareholders and investors or for a broader set of stakeholders?” Both of the poles in the paradox are necessary for the long term health of the organization. It is the dynamic equilibrium between them that managers must hold.

To manage a paradox, according to the article, leaders must hold ambiguity as multiple truths, cope with change instead of fighting it and build supporting organizational competencies. The authors recommend separating the two poles of the paradox and then creating linkages between the separate pieces to achieve a dynamic equilibrium. This advice actually creates a static equilibrium with two separate but communicating parts. To create a dynamic equilibrium the organization must be designed to change itself on a continuing basis to reflect the needs of the projects, processes and people within it. This goes beyond a paradox and in many ways resolves the paradox as well. Resources flow to one polarity of the paradox for a while and then reverse and flow to the other in a way that is determined by the needs of each of the polarities and the business. This concept flows readily from change theory.

It takes one of Fitzgerald’s first-class minds to identify the paradoxes that the organization faces and to create the dynamic equilibrium the organization needs. Leaders with a first-class mind are able to identify and resolve the paradoxes described in the article and get the organization to flourish even as the context in which it operates is continuously changing. It takes a serious amount of developmental coaching to become a first-class mind.