For example, Leading with Heart would represent Pole 1 and Leading with Backbone would represent Pole 2. When viewed as a problem—such as “Should I lead with my backbone OR my heart?”—the leader then selects one of the two approaches as their default way of leading. They will then view their choice as better than the other pole. (“I am a lead-with-the-heart-type.”) Regardless of which pole he/she selects, over time, this leader will overuse this pole to the neglect of the other pole. If the leader’s style is to choose backbone, this leader will lean into this approach strongly and will then neglect the benefits of leading with heart. Likewise, if the leader chooses to lead with heart, he/she will neglect the benefits of leading with backbone.
This mindset that situations are problems to be solved creates a dilemma that the leader falsely believes he/she has to choose one pole over the other. A leader sees the positives of his/her approach and the negatives of the other approach. Once the leader selects one pole (or approach) over the other, they create a belief that they have determined the “right” way to lead. In this mindset, the leader often sees the upsides in his/her own style and the downsides in a different style. Thinking that only one way is the “right” way to lead excludes leaders from accessing a whole set of leadership behaviors (from the other pole) that are equally as beneficial. Therefore, a leader is not leveraging his/her full potential and effectiveness.
The advantage of Polarity Thinking is that there is no “one” right way to lead, and a leader does not have to select one pole over the other; rather, a leader can select both. This mindset requires a leader to recognize the interdependency of the two poles, rather than seeing the two poles as separate and unrelated. If a leader overuses Leading with Backbone, his/her employees may feel the lack of connection and support. If a leader overuses Leading with Heart, his/her employees may feel a lack of clarity or direction. The point being that one pole impacts the other pole and, therefore, they are interdependent. Recognizing this principle of the poles being influenced by one another allows the leader to then see a bigger picture of their potential impact. The leader can then see how leaning into one behavior too much over time negatively impacts the greater system.
When leaders become more aware of this system, they can then see that both poles have upsides and downsides. With this in mind, a leader no longer views his/her way as the right way but also sees the value of the other pole as well and begins to leverage the upsides, or benefits, of both poles. Leaders learn to navigate through the tension by leveraging the upsides of both poles (using “both/and” thinking) rather than trying to “solve” for the tension by choosing one pole over the other (using “either/or” thinking).
Polarity Thinking is a great tool for coaches to help leaders think more systemically and broadly about their leadership effectiveness. Coaches can use this framework to help clients who tend to gravitate towards an “either/or” mindset (e.g., there is one right way) to shift their clients’ views to a “both/and” mindset and become more open to multiple “right” ways of leading.1K Club