The Leadership Scales

Individualism or collaboration, control or empowerment, exploration or decisiveness…how do you choose?

The balance of leadership can be like scales, with what feels like competing attributes on either side, so what is the answer? If you read many of the leadership papers and articles currently being written, the attributes of ‘command and control’ are dead, and collaboration and co-creation are king. I am not so sure, surely it’s the best of both at the right time that leaders really need.

In my experience, it’s true that too much control, too much individualism, too much ego alienates others and pushes leaders further away from those that are intended to follow them, but don’t we also revere these traits holding up individual leaders as icons of leadership with little or no recognition of the many that surround them and enable them to be the leaders they are?  Equally working with leaders who want to collaborate on everything, avoid having difficult conversations or giving constructive criticism because they are concerned about the impact on others, can be just as frustrating and as ineffective.

By the time a leader has reached the upper reaches of an organisation they are often expected or feel obligated to always have the answer, to appear unwavering in times of difficulty, to be bold, to be the ‘hero’ and yes they do need to do all of those things…when the time is right. The danger comes when this is the only leadership path they tread, that in pursuit of the result they forego the balance of relationship building, the development of trust, the reality that they are probably (and hopefully) surrounded by those that are more expert in certain fields than they are, the ability to listen, not just to what is actually being said but also to everything that is not. In my time coaching senior leaders I often hear such questions as ‘how do I ask others for the answer when I don’t know it, surely if I do, I appear weak and incapable?’ and ‘how do I hold back from giving the answer when I know exactly what we need to do, surely we are just wasting time while others discuss it?’, both maybe appropriate or inappropriate, it just depends not the situation and which way the ‘scales are tipped’.

In a time of chaos and uncertainty, which in actual fact is just the way life is and always will be, I believe leaders need a range of skills and attributes at their finger tips and more importantly they need the intellectual and emotional intelligence to know which to use and when, in order to deliver the ever increasing demand for results and keep their people on the journey with them.

The balance between all of these traits, skills and attributes are critical to leadership, but first, a leader has to know and understand themselves and to have the humility to recognize what they are good at and where they fall short. Self-awareness must be the continual starting point for any leader, from there, the ability, integrity and flexibility to choose the most appropriate and effective leadership pathway setting their own ego aside and prioritizing the needs of their organisation is the ideal next step –sounds easy in theory, in practice I believe it is something even the best leaders find continually challenging.

I meet many senior leaders who, once they have reached a certain stage in their career, seem to revert to their innate preferences and strengths, disregarding the weaknesses they may have worked on previously. In some cases, this is because to admit these weaknesses feels inappropriate, in other cases they feel they no longer need to work on them, assuming that continued development is not needed and is only for those still climbing the leadership ladder.

Every situation requires leadership flexibility and balance, whether you have been leading for weeks or years, each challenge or opportunity is unique and as such the most effective leaders will continue to grow and develop so that they are always best placed to ‘weight their scales’ accordingly and choose the most effective leadership approach, as in the words of JFK “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other”.

Sarah Wall

Sarah has been in Learning and Development and Organisation Development for more than 25 years and has an MSc in Systemic Leadership and Organisation Development.