Every Leader Needs to Navigate These 7 Tensions

Curated by Vikas (Princeton)

It is said that old-style command-and-control leadership is out and a new way of leading is in.

Instead of telling people what to do, leaders should ask them open-ended questions. Instead of sticking exactly to plans, they should adjust goals as new information emerges. Instead of working from the gut, a leader should rely on data to make decisions. And so forth.

Let s call this old-fashioned leadership model traditional and the new one emerging.

Here s the challenge: in the current environment, most executives need to be good at both styles to succeed. That is, any leader who relies solely on positional authority will run into trouble; business, technology, and workforce expectations are changing much too quickly for that approach to be sustainable. But at the same time, any leader who fails to strive for perfection, who never tells and only listens, and who shares but never holds power, will also struggle to be effective.

Following are the seven core tensions between the traditional and emerging leadership approaches.

Those tensions create significant stress for leaders, as they are often unsure of what competencies, skills, and behaviours to exercise in a particular context. Let’s look at the tensions, outline the dangers in ignoring them, and suggest coping strategies for balancing the two approaches.

Tension 1: The Expert vs. the Learner

Traditionally, leaders built their careers by developing deep expertise of some kind and demonstrating increasing levels of competence as they moved up the corporate ladder.

 Organizations assumed that they would bring superior insight to the challenge at hand.

 In the emerging approach, leaders must accept that their specialized expertise is limited (in some cases obsolete) and be open to learning from others. This is especially true when it comes to digital knowledge, as many of the leaders who are tasked with leading digital transformations are not digital natives themselves. If this tension is not managed wisely, leaders run the risk of making bad or inappropriate decisions.

Tension 2: The Constant vs. the Adaptor

The traditional approach to leadership values decision-making conviction and consistency; good leaders stick to their guns.

 By contrast, the emerging approach recognizes that in fast-changing environments, decisions often need to be reversed or adapted, and that changing course in response to new information is a strength, not a weakness.

If this tension is not managed wisely, leaders run the risk of seeming too rigid, on the one hand, or too wishy-washy on the other.

Tension 3: The Tactician vs. the Visionary

The traditional approach to leadership?calls for operational clarity and well-defined plans.

The emerging approach suggests that leaders require a clear vision for where they want to go, without necessarily needing a concrete roadmap for how to get there.

If this tension isn’t managed wisely, leaders run the risk of providing no north star for their team members. On the other hand, if they are not grounded in reality, they may serve up lofty, unrealistic, or intangible goals.

Tension 4: The Teller vs. the Listener

The traditional approach to leadership calls for leaders to tell others what to do and how to do it.

The emerging approach values listening carefully to others before deciding.

If this tension is not managed wisely, leaders run the risk of missing important information that resides in the team members surrounding them. Conversely, if a leader refrains from providing their viewpoint, they miss the chance to apply their own valuable knowledge.

Tension 5: The Power Holder vs. the Power Sharer

The traditional approach suggests that leaders must lead from the top, make decisions, and take actions independently.

 In contrast, the emerging approach values empowering others to achieve goals. If this tension is not managed wisely, leaders run the risk of alienating and marginalizing promising talent.

Alternatively, they may undermine their own authority by sharing power too broadly.

Tension 6: The Intuitionist vs. the Analyst

The traditional approach suggests that leaders build up an expert gut to make intuitive decisions.

By contrast, the emerging approach says that leaders should base decisions largely on data. If this tension is not managed wisely, leaders run the risk of making decisions based on outdated and biased heuristics. Or, on the other hand, they risk ignoring their inner compass, which might provide valuable insights from past experience.

Tension 7: The Perfectionist vs. the Accelerator

The traditional approach asserts that leaders should take the time to deliver a perfectly finished product.

The emerging approach calls for leaders to acknowledge that doing something quickly, and failing fast, is often more important than doing it perfectly.

If not managed wisely, leaders run the risk of delaying the launch of key initiatives or directives due to a fear of imperfection. Conversely, bringing initiatives forward without ample consideration and testing can lead to embarrassing results.

What can executives do to navigate these tensions?

Leaders improve their effectiveness not by consistently emphasizing one approach over the other, but by developing the ambidexterity to move between the two as the context requires.

The difficulty of achieving this level of cognitive and behavioral ambidexterity should not be underestimated ? but it can be achieved, with focused efforts.

Self-awareness. Understanding one s natural tendencies is an important first step. Where is your comfort zone? What s your default position? In the digital world, leaders can gain insight about themselves from real-time feedback apps or from online forums where members of their community post comments and provide assessments.

Learn, adapt, practice. Once leaders know their natural tendencies, they can work to develop a portfolio of micro-behaviors to address the tensions that they don t manage well. This process can be enhanced by formal coaching and leaning

Contextual awarenessBecoming a more effective leader means not only expanding one s current leadership approach to incorporate new behaviors but knowing when to focus more on one side of the tension or the other.

 This requires both contextual awareness and emotional intelligence sourced directly from the leader or from the surrounding social environment.

Authored by Jennifer Jordan, & Michael Wade, for HBR