These two ways of leading are intertwined and are part of a larger system at play. These interdependent pairs are called Polarities, a term coined by Dr. Barry Johnson (1996), and can occur at the individual, team, organizational, and societal levels. Some common examples of Polarities are Mission and Margin, Centralized and Decentralized, Candor and Diplomacy, Mercy and Justice.
We will explain Polarities in more detail later but for now, the key point is that interdependencies exist, and this construct is helpful in understanding leadership behaviors. Common Polarities in Leadership are: Being Direct and Supportive, Leading from the Front and Leading from the Back, and Being Firm and Flexible. There are hundreds of other Polarities. What stood out to us was the dynamic of leadership behaviors.
Many leadership assessment tools offer laundry lists of effective and ineffective ways of leading; however, something critical is missing from such a black-and-white approach. These tools were missing the dynamic nature between leadership behaviors. Behaviors do not occur in a vacuum, they are embedded in a system. This system exists whether we see the system or not. When you pull on one behavior, over time, the other behavior will be impacted. Therefore, we were interested in creating a leadership assessment tool that conveys the dynamic nature of leadership behaviors. With this knowledge, we felt we could best support leaders in helping them recognize the greater system, broaden their view of effectiveness, and determine new strategies to be effective leaders.
Leading Through a Polarity Lens
This concept of leveraging the upsides and minimizing the downsides of two seemingly opposing approaches (e.g., leading with backbone and leading with heart) is called Polarity Thinking or And-Thinking, coined by Dr. Barry Johnson of Polarity Partnerships (2020). Polarity Thinking views some situations not as problems to be solved but as Polarities to navigate through. The poles represent two interdependent pairs, or tensions, that on the surface can appear to be at odds with one another. Leaders are aware of the tension between these two seemingly opposing choices of behaviors and feel compelled to select one side or the other.1K Club