Balancing Leadership Perspective

Every leader has daily choices about how much to maintain continuity toward objectives and how to seek out and be receptive to new opportunities.

Whether they're visible or not, a range of forces affects everything in our natural and organizational world. Great leaders are akin to martial arts masters in knowing they can achieve what others see as magical results by first understanding and then directing the resultant energies affecting any situation. This allows them to truly harness the power to make desired changes happen as easily as possible. On the flip side, those who ignore or, worse, seek to actively oppose these implacable vectors are fighting steep uphill battles.

For example, take balance, which is critical in any activity. Physics reveals that Stability and Mobility are countervailing forces. In other words, the more stable you are (think of lying supine/on your back), the less mobile; conversely, the more mobile you are, the lower your stability (think of a great running back in full stride who can be brought down by a defensive player's hand swiping one foot.) Similarly, for organizational change agents, there's typically a tradeoff between holding one's ground vs. agilely shifting direction when unexpected opportunities arise.

Yet many leaders allow themselves to be tilted toward either of two extremes. On one edge are the left-brained logicians, carefully and meticulously pre-planning objectives, then shrugging off any information that appears distracting, all the while firmly holding to the course of their preset plans. (Mottos: "You can never be prepared enough," "Look before you leap.")

These contrast with the opposite-spectrumed, right-brained intuitives, planning with lesser detail, who rely on extending their antennae to receptively monitor signs of the right moment to agilely move when unexpected opportunities arise, then adjusting plans on the fly. (Mottos: "Ready, Fire, Aim," "He who hesitates is lost.")

But balance again rules. Take my daughter, Kyra Bussanich. Have you heard of the Food Network's show Cupcake Wars? Well, she's won this three times! (You can Google her.) And she's the only gluten-free baker to ever win this show--without ever being awarded any "handicap points" for baking with changing multi-mixes of ingredients when competing against traditional bakers who used tried-and-true pastry flour.

Her back story is one of balancing perspectives. In college, she was on track to become a lawyer. But her carefully planned life choices were derailed when she was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease as a sophomore. Though she graduated with honors, illness prevailed for years. Having an incurable condition changed her perspective on what to do with her life. After years of unsatisfying jobs, she decided to go back to what she really enjoyed when younger, creating pastries. So she chose to apply to a first-rate baking school. Then, because she couldn't eat the glutenated desserts she was being taught to prepare, she experimented, figured out the keys to delightful, breakthrough gluten-free baking and, well, the rest is history. (And she's also living healthy without medication.)

Even so, her movement hasn't ended from eye-on-the-future-prize planning to acknowledging and incorporating current forces. She's continually offered tempting possibilities; she's given out her unique creations at the Golden Globe Awards, been featured in many broadcast media, had ship cruises built around her, and much more. On a daily basis, it's challenging for her to weigh and then balance planning where she wishes to go with the many out-of-the-blue opportunities directed her way.

Those of us who are less well known may not be besieged with the same number of tempting offers. However, every leader has daily choices about how much to maintain continuity toward objectives and how to seek out and be receptive to new opportunities.

How to maintain a balanced leadership perspective?

  • Aim for broad goals and be more flexible with how you accomplish these. Revisit plans to see to what degree these are still relevant. Johnson & Johnson has a long-term credo, a set of values that guides the company's decisions. Knowing that anything that just exists on paper is likely to become stale, senior executives meet yearly to see how to apply the credo to their current world, changes, and demands among customers, regulators, a range of shareholders, and the market. Keeping fresh on their credo has enabled Johnson & Johnson leaders to weather potentially destructive situations that were otherwise out of their control. Thinking through possibilities is more useful than a frozen-in-time piece document. As General (and President) Dwight Eisenhower contended, "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."
  • Revisit your plans regularly. Maintain a mindset of being willing to modify or even let go of previous plans.
  • Remind yourself to see the opportunities potentially present in any change, no matter how upsetting these first appear. Kyra has mentioned many times that, though of course she wished she didn't have an autoimmune disease, without that reality and its related critical dietary restrictions, she'd never have made the breakthroughs in gluten-free baking that she has (and then been able to shine a light of possibilities for many others).
  • Enlist the people close to you to join you in the balancing act. Even the most well-intentioned person sometimes becomes hypnotized by the daily whirl of activities and can't see the opportunities for the data. Having associates who are alert and who nudge your attention helps to build your leadership effectiveness.

Balance is crucial to success. I've seen how easy it is for leaders to become distracted and overwhelmed by change or, alternately, to become out-of-touch and disconnected by holding on to the past. But I've also seen how strong leaders continue to renew a balanced mindset, to be able to make careful, wide-perspective plans while simultaneously staying responsive to changing circumstances. For many, including Kyra, this is their real superpower.

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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