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Desert Highway
Thoughtful writing authored and shared by members of of the Thinking Collaborative community to support others on the journey.

Sustaining the Journey

Polarities of Leadership Part 1

Authored By:

Carolee Hayes


June 14, 2023

In Adaptive Schools, we promote the philosophy that each member of an organization is a leader. That means students are leaders, teachers are leaders, and there are formal positional leaders with role authority. The question we must ask ourselves, no matter whether we are formal or informal leaders, is how to manage the naturally occurring polarities of different ways of leading. In their article, “Every Leader Needs to Navigate These 7 Tensions,” J. Jordan, M. Wade, and E. Teracino provide some insights.

The authors speak to two kinds of leaders, the traditional and the emerging. They suggest it is not an either/or in how one leads, but instead becoming effective at both and making choices about which serves best when. The explanation of what they call, “tensions,” is helpful to any leader who is reflective and interested in improving one’s practice and results. This month we will explore the first four and next month the last three. We will refer to these as polarities in order to align with the AS work on polarity management.

#1 The Expert versus the Learner

The traditional leader relies on their expertise for facing challenges, assuming they have superior knowledge. By contrast, the emerging leader knows their knowledge is incomplete or even obsolete. The danger in assuming one has all the specialized knowledge is obvious in an everchanging world where learning is ongoing. This has been shown to be especially true with technology and advances in systems changing daily. In the post Covid environment and with advancing AI dependence, the wise leader will lean toward the learning side of this polarity and rely on their followers more than ever.

#2 The Constant versus the Adaptor

The traditional leadership polarity values consistency and standardization. The emerging polarity responds to ever changing conditions, even reversing or changing course. The difficulty in managing this polarity is one side can be perceived as inflexible while the other side may seem indecisive. Admission of past errors can serve leaders in managing this polarity.

#3 The Tactician versus the Visionary

Traditional leaders are focused on operations and careful plans. Emerging leaders have clear vision but don’t always have well-defined details on how to get there. The danger of the traditional leader’s approach is it may not be grounded in current realities and may not match the needs of the followers. On the other hand, the emergent leader may be unable to provide a clear journey and create cynicism. Experimentation and reflection can help balance this polarity. Regularly examining policies and plans is also a wise tool for leaders struggling with the polarity.

#4 The Teller vs. the Listener

The traditional leader is skilled in telling others how to do things and making sure they are done according to plan. The emerging leader does not decide until they have listened intently and thoroughly to their followers. This is a particularly important tension when dealing with stakeholders from different generations, races, cultures, etc., who may see the world through very distinctive lenses. Diversity requires attuning to human uniqueness through extraordinary listening.

Getting Started

In examining one’s own management of these polarities, it is helpful to do some reflection on recent events in your sphere of influence. Equally valuable is asking for feedback from peers on how you have made decisions and lead in high stakes situations. What patterns are emerging for you as you consider these polarities? What might be some things you hope to pay more attention to in the future?

Jordan, J et al. (2020). Every Leader Needs to Navigate These 7 Tensions. Harvard Business Review.

Coming in July – three more polarities of leadership

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