Balance is very difficult for leaders. When things go wrong, many of us find it hard to stay calm, cool, and collected.
Leaders are expected to meet objectives, yet also be approachable. To maintain control, but welcome differing opinions. To motivate staff, yet manage ongoing risks.
A few years ago, I was hired as director at a healthcare facility in Minnesota. It was a perfect fit for my experience and training. The leadership team was encouraging, as were the members of my department. And I really loved being in a long-term care environment.
But despite all the support, I found myself increasingly stressed and anxious. The problem wasn’t just the high-pressure environment; instead, it was a battle happening in my mind. As an introvert, I do my best work in periods of silence and reflection. My information-gathering process is intuitive, because I rely on connections between things that are not obvious to others. Rather than following a specific pathway, I look for hidden clues and investigate the root causes of problems. My process may be unconventional, but it gets results.
Unfortunately, executive roles typically do not welcome an intuitive thinking process. And this clash — between my natural temperament, and a system that rewards fast and decisive action — resulted in a very high-stress environment.
Why was it so difficult for intuitive leaders to fit the mold of traditional corporate thinking?
Is it possible to find a balanced leadership style?
The root cause of my struggle has eluded me until recently. Two years ago, I moved to the green and rainy Pacific Northwest. Non-traditional medicine is more common here than in previous US regions where I’d lived. Clinical research continues to confirm the validity of Traditional Chinese Medicine and the many benefits of a nurturing, holistic approach to healthcare.
Yet I rarely saw those same methods applied to the strategic planning process.
So I wondered: “What would happen if Yin and Yang thinking were used in strategic decision-making?” and more importantly, “Can a balance between extremes in leadership styles decrease the occurrence of strategic risk?”
While my journey continues, I want to share some discoveries about how the Yin-Yang philosophy can improve your skills in leadership and governance.
Background and Core Concepts
According to the Chinese Taoist philosophy of yin and yang (陰陽 yīnyáng, which literally means “dark–bright”), all natural forces are interconnected. We see evidence of contracting and expanding forces in biology. It’s also evident in human physiology (how the body works). We can even see magnetizing forces in our everyday interactions. As the saying goes, “opposites attract.”
The existence of opposing yet interconnected forces is evident beyond the world of science and medicine. All organizations have a distinct internal culture that reflects the philosophy of its executive leaders. Some leaders lean more to the Yang side. They expect fast action, they reward an aggressive approach, and they maintain strong controls. Other leaders approach problems by inviting collaboration. They use a more passive approach, using very few rules.
For any organization to work effectively, its leaders must find a harmonic balance between opposing forces: control on one side, and freedom on the other. As leaders, our objective is to find a “sweet spot” that motivates while also achieving strategic objectives.
The Yin and Yang philosophy has three core concepts:
- Cycles move from one extreme to the other (night ends as day approaches)
- All things are interconnected and dependent on one another
- Balance is an ongoing process of ebb and flow
Yin represents an internal, nurturing female energy. It includes the moon, cold, and rest & renewal.
Yang represents an external, dominant male energy. It includes the sun, heat, and activity.
Yin provides introspection, deceleration, and adaptation to change; while Yang provides expansion, acceleration, and certainty.
Leading with primarily Yin or Yang energy is especially noticeable in the management of change. Yin favors a calm, internal focus when adapting to change. Yang, on the other hand, prefers speed and a focus on outward results. Let’s examine how this impacts management.
Two Extremes of Management
Every organization has a unique core set of acceptable beliefs and actions. We often call this the “company culture.” And whether or not we realize it, managers possess a unique set of personal beliefs that drive decision-making. Our personal philosophy is a complex mix of personality style, temperament, strengths, and experiences. Taken together, these elements have a huge impact on how we think and act.
Even the most cautious leader has some limitations in the way he or she perceives the world. I would call these limitations blind spots: areas where we cannot or will not see what others perceive. We all have a tendency toward Yang (Authoritative) or Yin (Collaborative) behavior. But if the blind spots are large enough, a leader could easily misjudge the balance and move toward an extreme. This can cause damage both professionally and to the overall growth of the organization we lead.
On one extreme is the Authoritative approach. This is a very structured, dominating, top-down communication style. We would call this the “Yang” side of management, because it is more focused on achieving results quickly and directly. In my experience, the vast majority of US-based companies operate with this management style.
On the other side of the spectrum is a Collaborative approach, in which employees and other stakeholders are invited to participate in the decision-making process. In this more nurturing management style, job roles and duties are allowed to evolve as the organization’s needs change. Leaders encourage open sharing and involvement.
This “Yin” approach is more embracing of reflection, flexibility, and steady growth. Although not as common in the Western world, an increasing number of organizations are beginning to use this style of management.
Overall, managing people and processes requires two components: the role itself (leadership), and the control mechanisms behind it (Governance). First, let’s take a look at Leadership.
Yin and Yang in Leadership Roles
We define a Leader as someone who influences people. Someone who can solve problems and guide decision-making. Someone who takes full responsibility for outcomes, whether positive or negative.
There are many types of leaders. Some are assertive, others more cautious. Many studies show that employee engagement is greatly affected by the relationship between managers and staff. Regardless of whether a leader is more Yin (Collaborative) or Yang (Authoritative) in their management style, it is important to recognize and resolve misunderstandings and unspoken expectations.
A Yin approach to Leadership involves:
- Decelerating movement vs. Accelerating
- Adapting to change vs. Expanding
- Activity that Nurtures vs. Initiates
- Responding to challenges by Yielding vs. Dominating
- Responsiveness that is Passive vs. Active
- Expressive emotion vs. Rational thinking
- Introspective disposition vs. Assertive
- Information processing that is Intuitive vs. Logical
- Skeptical trust and belief vs. absolute Certainty
- Vigilant decision-making vs. Impulsive
- Results that are focused on Quality (how well) vs. Quantity (how much)
Yin and Yang in Governance Roles
Governance is the process of creating and maintaining control. We often use obvious tools like Policies and Procedures (P&Ps), Standards, and comprehensive training programs.
“Soft” motivational methods that wield control as well. Using a subtle and indirect approach is more likely to engage staff who are introverted and introspective. Control doesn’t have to be forceful; it can be quietly compelling under the right conditions. The key is to create a structure that is sensitive to the Fears, Needs, and Expectations of people you are trying to motivate.
Well-defined governance provides a perfect balance of structure and flexibility. When decisions are made based using a combination of fact-based research and first-person experiences, your entire team will feel engaged and heard. And ultimately, your plan is much more likely to succeed because it combines subjective experiences (feedback and opinions) with objective data (quantitative measures).
A Yin approach to Governance looks like this:
- Collaborative structure vs. Hierarchical
- A decision process that favors Consensus vs. Dominance
- Control that is Supportive vs. Rigid
- Data Management that is Decentralized vs. Centralized
- A Consultative vs. Assertive communication style
- Info Gathering that is Subjective (open to interpretation) vs. Objective (not influenced by one’s own feelings or opinions)
- Core Value of Security vs. Autonomy
- The ultimate goal of Improvement vs. Stability
Decreasing the Occurrence of Strategic Risk
In its extreme, Yin governance will result in Chaos, because the lack of structure and rules will devolve into a total absence of control. The other extreme, Yang governance, eventually results in Captivity. This is because a rigid and dominant system restricts all freedoms and self-expression. Either extreme is unhealthy and will open up your organization to vulnerability and attacks.
Hundreds of potential threats exist in every company. The most common are interpersonal (we hear about disgruntled ex-employees every day), system failure (nobody felt the need to point out a major flaw), repeat offenses (allowing bad behavior to continue), and overconfidence (leaders move forward with their plan despite concerns from employees)
Authoritative and Collaborative management styles complement each other very well. Ultimately, every organization can benefit when its leaders do the following:
- Recognize areas of imbalance and extremes
- Understand the ways all people, processes, and external influences are interconnected and dependent
- Welcome areas of natural ebb and flow in your organization, rather than resisting them
Here are some simple ways to take action in balancing your management style, both in daily interactions and when defining controls.
Leadership Yin and Yang
- Consider times when you lead from an extreme position, rather than a balanced one. Take steps to adjust extreme behaviors and recognize your blind spots.
- Reflect on your “basement strengths”: areas where you are very strong, but end up overpowering others in the process.
- Explore new leadership methods that do not come naturally. For example, if you’re normally very confident and logical in decision-making, try a more introspective and skeptical approach. This can also allow you to appreciate personality traits that rub you the wrong way.
Governance Yin and Yang
- Review your current Strategic Plan with fresh eyes. This includes the Vision and Mission statement, strategic objectives and measures, Policies and Procedures, and the staff on-boarding process. Not only do all of these directly influence your team members and reflect your executive philosophy, they are also areas of extreme vulnerability to executive bias and blind spots.
- Spend time with your “Foundational Staff” (employees at the lowest levels of your organization) in order to truly hear their struggles and frustrations. The rate of strategic risk increases when top-level leaders aren’t aware of what is going on outside the board room.
- Create opportunities for honest feedback from your stakeholders. Welcome “bad news.” The more you connect with customers, staff, and the community you serve, the more prepared you will be to respond to increased risks.
The impact of masculine and feminine energy in organizational leadership is tremendous. As a female with management experience in the healthcare technology industry, I know first-hand how difficult it is to lead with intuition, caution, and skepticism. Male-dominated fields tend to reward aggressive personalities, and unfortunately this type of culture can push away both women and men who are contemplative and introspective.
Switching from a dominant and forceful leadership style to one that is nurturing and intuitive can feel uncomfortable. And shifting from a passive and introspective leadership style to one that is more assertive and dominant one can be challenging as well.
Stretching beyond our comfort level allows us to connect more deeply with staff and stakeholders who have opposite personality traits to our own. It also provides a rare glimpse into the perspective of others. There are many ways to recognize risks, but understanding how others perceive us as leaders is the easiest and most effective way to fix strategic threats.
Have you found it difficult to balance the Yang and Yin in your management style? How do you avoid going to either extreme? Feel free to share your comments below.
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Grace LaConte is a Strategic Risk Expert who helps executive leaders find and fix organizational vulnerabilities. Using her experience as a Risk Officer and Director in healthcare and technology companies, Grace shares a refreshingly honest approach to uncovering hidden risks and opportunities. Learn more at http://laconteconsulting.com, or connect with her on Twitter @lacontestrategy.
Cross-published on Medium: https://medium.com/@lacontestrategy/balance-is-very-difficult-for-leaders-6bf251b566b6