So you’re now a leader. Your boss is counting on you to deliver results through other people in some fashion. Any person who is expected to influence and guide others is in a leadership capacity, regardless of whether they have formal title and direct reports or not.
Immediately, you’re faced with a dilemma—one that isn’t often overtly stated as such, but nonetheless exists in nearly every leadership role. On one hand, you’re expected to keep things running efficiently, maximizing productivity of the assets you’re responsible for, and ensuring consistent high quality output. On the other hand, you’re also expected to be a change agent – identifying needed changes, initiating and driving those changes, “shaking up the status quo” and innovating.
I think this dilemma gets to the heart of why so many leaders struggle, especially early in their leadership careers. You’re simultaneously asked to do two very different things as highlighted below—you are to preserve the status quo and yet also to disrupt the status quo. Effective leaders are nothing if not agile.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Beyond the Holacracy Hype” the authors refer to the two extremes as reliability and adaptability and focus their attention on the organizational design implications of managing both of these needs, which are very intriguing. (Beyond the Holacracy Hype by Ethan Bernstein, John Bunch, Niko Canner, and Michael Lee, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2016)
However, just as intriguing is to consider the impact on the individual leader. How does one go about simultaneously preserving the status quo while also disrupting the status quo? Aren’t these polar opposite needs? Shouldn’t I focus on one more than the other? Which is most important? Can I really do either or both well?
The short answer is “yes”–you have to figure out how to do all of the above and likely at the same time—welcome to the challenges of leadership. Finding ways to maximize both reliability and adaptability is critical to leadership success.
Let me share some thoughts about how to accomplish both:
- First, clarify the organization’s expectations of your role—organize your responsibilities by looking at what they require – which ones require more of a “reliability” approach and which require more of an “adaptive” approach? Then, overlay the priorities for your role—which items are most critical? Do you see any patterns? Consider not just today’s needs, but where your organization is going in the future. As you look forward, will your role require more of one approach over the other?
- Next, assess your own preferences – which end of the dichotomy is your more natural inclination? Do you enjoy running a tidy ship, keep things moving at optimal efficiency and producing steady, predictable results? Or, are you more interested in finding new ways to do things, leading change (even if it’s a bit “messy”), and finding ways to shift priorities and resources? Remember that neither end is better than the other, both are important.
- Third, once you know your own inclinations, assess your team’s interests and capabilities. Where do they tend to focus and spend their energy? Do you have people who demonstrate preferences for one or the other? Or does your team tend to collectively lean one way or the other? How do their preferences align with their assignments and with the expectations you identified above? If your resources do not align well, consider how you can round out your team’s capabilities and especially balance their preferences with your own.
- Fourth, once you’ve clarified the above, check your calendar and see how you’re spending your time. Does your calendar and allocation of your attention reflect effort towards both ends of the dichotomy?
Finally, being able to shift your thinking from one end of the dichotomy to the other on any given day is critical. While your natural preferences may lean one way or the other, you can compensate by developing and broadening your skill set. Develop your agility by enlisting your team’s support and seeking feedback, getting coaching from those who have different strengths than you and pushing yourself to view the world from a different perspective.