Leading into the Future III: From the Pendulum to the Fire
For example, the comptroller’s interest in minimizing expenses is pitted against the marketing department head who needs to invest in consumer research. A centralized corporation has the need to standardize its offerings, but the offices in other states or provinces need flexibility in running their daily affairs. Neither position is “wrong.” Leaders who understands polarity management will regularly encourage those with whom they are working to bring both parties to the table and facilitate a mutual understanding of the respective benefits and possible negative consequences of holding either position to the exclusion of the other.
Once the strengths and risks of the two sides are understood, the discussion is directed by the leader to what happens when we try to maximize the benefits of one side at the expense of the other side. For example, we might simply centralize everything. What happens? We decide to basically sleep at the office and ignore our family. What are the repercussions? As a manager, we always sided with our people’s needs or always drive them for maximum efficiency. What will be the outcome? It turns out that such unilateral bias to one side of a paradox or dilemma soon causes the downsides of that same force to manifest: Our nights at the office eventually lead to divorce, just as a 24/7 romance at the exclusion of work would likely lead to destitution. Total centralization causes the incapacity to customize, but totally giving way to the local interests of a subsidiary would drive up the cost to uncompetitive levels.
Barry Johnson warns us as leaders that we not try to maximize but rather carefully optimize the degree to which the parties incline toward one side or the other and for how long. Optimizing means that we must find a reasonable and perhaps flexible set-point as we take action in favor of one side or another. Finding these acceptable optimum responses and redefining them again and again is the key to polarity management; and it requires a constant process of vigilance, negotiation and adjustments. Effective 21st Century leaders must continuously seek and refine a dynamic, flexible balance so that each side’s beneficial contribution can be enjoyed, without engendering serious negative consequences. This is what it means to navigate a rugged landscape.