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Black, White, Gray, & Something Completely Different

A core competency of leadership is the balancing of competing needs and constituencies. There is a right way to do this and a wrong way. To do it right, think like a painter: you need both black and white. If you do it wrong, you get a palette full of gray. There are three key skills needed to avoid gray in the quest for balance:

  • Cultivating diversity rather than  uniformity
  • Recognizing which of a range of ideas is most appropriate to the moment
  • Knowing how to build on opposing ideas to reach a superior solution

I write a lot about balance because a good leader needs an arsenal of tools to manage a wide range of situations. Like a prizefighter, you need to know how to throw a left and a right and when to choose which, even though you know you’re stronger with one than the other. You could have the best left hook in the world, but if your right isn’t at least good enough, you will lose every time. Diversity is required.

And you need to know which to use when. You need to know when to speed and when to slow and you need to be comfortable with both.

Great leaders know how to build their organizations on foundations of diversity, encouraging a thousand varied flowers to bloom. But they also know there are times to drive conformity. It’s about cultivating many potentialities, keeping them all in balance, and selecting the right one for the moment.

Managing for balance does not  mean living in the center. Sometimes a leader must rush to an extreme to offset a prevailing organizational bias. If the group is lethargic, the leader becomes a whirlwind of activity. If the group is hyperactive, the leader applies brakes. But always, the leader observes the broad context and, like a healer, applies the right remedy.

The danger is mistaking the balance of competing demands with compromise. Compromise drives towards mediocrity. Instead of mixing black and white into gray, the great leader squeezes out the optimal amount of black AND white and paints something valuable by using the right amount of both – what Jim Collins calls “the genius of the and.”

Ideologues abhor balance. They can be brilliant leaders for a while and achieve remarkable results, because they can paint a blazing vision that stimulates strong emotions. But they are incapable of building sustaining organizations because they can only see from a single perspective. They can only move in one direction by denying all other directions. We’ve all seen brilliant entrepreneurs whose enthusiasm drives incredible results for a while, only to hit a wall when the group burns out because the leader couldn’t shift to a lower gear, or adjust when the market shifts. Call it the one-trick-pony syndrome.

By contrast, great leaders recognize that by balancing opposites, they can synthesize superior solutions, neither black nor white nor gray but something extraordinary and new. This does not mean losing sight of their mission, but rather finding a brilliant new way to stay on track.

As a wise teacher once said, “When I see someone go too far to the right, I shout ‘Go left!’ When I see someone go too far to the left, I shout ‘Go right!’ Some complain I’m not consistent. I think I am. I get people to where they need to go.”

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