The One Leadership Skill You Need

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Photo taken by Melissa in NYC on Lower East Side, August, 2018

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

“What’s the most important skill to have in today’s workplace?” Maria asked me.

Fresh out of college, she was eager to explore the opportunities in front of her.  She calmly sipped her Blue Bottle latte while waiting for the usual answers that she had heard before from other mentors and professors. The list goes something like this:

  • emotional intelligence (important),
  • strategic thinking (yup),
  • presenting (very important),
  • Managing projects (also important) and
  • Collaborating (uh huh)


So when I said, “Polarity thinking”, she was caught off guard.


“Um, what?” Maria said as she now chugged her latte.


“Polarity thinking—the ability to manage both/and thinking”, I said, now calmly sipping and learning how to enjoy almond milk lattes.  


“You’ve done it before. You likely just don’t realize it. When you work between two extremes, two tensions, that’s polarity thinking.


Polarity thinking is a skill I’ve honed over years of working at fast growing companies. Many successful people I’ve worked with have also learned to dance between polarities, sometimes moving between them within minutes. Polarities are sets of interdependent opposites that belong to the same whole. The point is not to choose one over the other. You need both. The organizational system needs both.


How do we maximize and sustain balancing between both extremes? We need to learn how to move fluidly between them. We cannot afford to operate in an ‘either or’ kind of way.

In Built to Last, Collins and Porras call it, “The Genius of the ‘AND’.” They went on to say that “builders of greatness reject the Tyranny of the OR and embrace the “Genius of the AND.” This is not about mere balance. Balance implies going to the midpoint. This is more about integration. How do we integrate both of the extremes into our work, based on what is needed at the time? As we integrate these polarities into our work more, we begin to see how interdependent they really are.

David Bohm, a theoretical physicist, studied polarities within the context of dialogue. He said, “tension is an opening to a deeper level of learning, capacity consciousness, and relationship…if the invitation is accepted.  Sometimes it takes a sizable energy charge to crack open we often call “the conspiracy of politeness,” that pull we all feel to keep the boat from rocking and to stay in our set ways.

We manage a lot of tensions in our days: change & stability; short term & long term; clarity & uncertainty, vulnerability & confidence, building & scaling. The three organizational tensions I have seen at play most are:

  • Strategy & Execution
  • Freedom & Process
  • Teacher & learner

Strategic & Execution

A good leader is both inspiring and sets direction for the future. She/he is also able to communicate the details–the tactics that need to get done beyond just rolling up the sleeves. If we focus too much on being strategic, we miss what is right in front of us. We are so busy working on that Powerpoint at home while four other issues just popped up in the last twenty-four hours that need to be addressed—now. Or we are so focused on rolling out a major initiative that we missed the entire point of answering why this is even important to do in the first place. We need to always be managing the flow between strategy and tactics, long-term thinking and execution.


Strategy is being able to think beyond your day, week, month, or quarter. As one CEO I worked with called it, it is the ability to think about what is around the corner. The ability to work strategically and with an execution orientation takes practice. It’s this kind of context shifting that is important for any leader to hone in a fast growing company.


Freedom & Process

As organizations scale, they need process. Yet, how do we keep the essence of who we are? Employees often share, “We want direction, but we do not want to lose our autonomy”. How do organizations continue to empower and give employees freedom while also building process constraints in order for the company to grow and scale more effectively?


Earlier in my career, when I brought a group of leaders together to discuss how we were going to transform the performance management process, I started the meeting by sharing that they had no constraints when it came to designing a new process.  I had blank pieces of flip chart paper around the room with a thick sharpie in hand ready to capture their ideas. One of the engineering leaders said, “ I appreciate you giving us so much freedom to innovate, however without some guardrails, it’s too big. We can design something better within parameters. What has worked with other processes like this? What should we not do?” People want to know the guardrails. Nobody likes bureaucracy or process. Yet, too much freedom can be paralyzing because it provides an infinite amount of choices. The irony is that when we are clear about those constraints, we have more freedom to create within that.


Teacher & Learner

If we are both a good teacher and a learner, we are a good coach. We are able to ask questions intentionally and listen to the answers. We are able to fail and share what we learned from that. New managers are afraid to ask questions. They think if they do, they will come across as inexperienced or incompetent. Yet, we know that the good managers ask good questions–the kind that lead us to thinking differently. Those are rooted in technical or functional knowledge. Reid Hoffman co-founder of LinkedIn, said in a recent interview that part of scaling as an entrepreneur means being an infinite learner. He says,

Learning is practically a job requirement for scale entrepreneurs because ‘almost every scalable idea forces you to grapple with an emerging phenomenon. Everything around you is changing — your business, your market, your team — and you can’t turn to any one expert for help — because there are no permanent experts”.


And so we become both. Today we are an infinite learner and tomorrow we will teach others not what we know, but what we learned today.

Polarities need to be managed, not solved. A problem usually has a solution that exists somewhere. A polarity doesn’t want to be solved. It wants us to pay attention to both extremes and work within those. Other examples of polarities include growth vs. consolidation; innovation vs. efficiency, centralization vs. decentralization, change vs. stability, empathy vs. toughness.

It’s easy to see these alternatives as directly opposed and in conflict. But, in truth, polarities are complementary and interdependent, says CCL’s David Dinwoodie.

“A polarity is a pair of interdependent opposites — if you focus on one of those to the neglect or exclusion of the other, at some point in time you dip into negative unintended consequences,” he explains. “The trick isn’t to solve a polarity or to make a choice and move on,” Dinwoodie continues. “You handle a polarity by first, recognizing what it is, and second, learning how to mentally and practically move through the ebbs and flows a polarity presents.”


Maria recently landed a job at a well-funded startup in San Francisco as a product manager of a small team. We chatted over the phone one day as she was struggling with a few things and wanted some quick coaching. “How do I be both authentic with my team while also being the badass leader they deserve?”


I had to smile.








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