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Productivity and the Balance Between Discipline and Freedom

When was the last time you had a peak experience?  You know those times, when you’re in the flow and everything is working and you are exceptionally productive, creative, stimulated.  I’ve had two of these experiences in the last month—both times in groups and in very different settings.  I’ve been thinking about what these two groups have to teach us about productivity and about bringing out the best in people and I’d like to share with you what I learned.
The first experience was in my bluegrass guitar class at the Augusta Heritage Center.  Our instructor, Tyler Grant (one of the most skilled and tasteful guitarists I’ve ever heard, http://tylergrant.com/about/) had quite a challenge.  His class consisted of six self-selected musicians with a wide variety of guitar playing ability.  That’s a situation that can easily lead to frustration or boredom because someone is beyond what’s being taught or can’t keep up.  The opposite happened in our class.  All six of us were stimulated and engaged for an entire week and were supporting and encouraging each other through the times when each of us got stuck.
How did Tyler create that kind of atmosphere?  It was simple, really, but not easy.  He began by asking each one of us what we came there to learn.  He found the common ground in all of us and then began teaching in a very structured way from the basics of how to hold the guitar pick to how to improvise in the middle of a song.  Along the way, though, we would digress into some interesting musical directions.  An exercise would remind someone of a cool song and we’d stop and learn that song.  At every step of the way Tyler would be encouraging us and giving us the space to laugh and joke.  Slowly we got to know each other and began hanging out during the breaks, coming early to class and helping each other remember the latest tune or lick. 
I was one of the people at the back of the pack struggling to keep up.  But there was only one moment when I was so frustrated I thought about quitting.  And in that moment the lessons Tyler was teaching us came back to me.  It was the basics—breathe, listen to the melody, find the root note, remember the scale.  That structure gave me confidence and I was able to make it through that rough patch.
What does Tyler have to teach us about leadership?  He is a master of managing the opposing forces in a group or organization.  He did what Barry Johnson calls Polarity Management, http://books.google.com/books/about/Polarity_Management.html?id=z9NMoCO9PncC.  Polarity management is taking two opposing forces and rather than thinking you have to choose one or the other you figure out how to bring out the positive sides of both while minimizing the negative energy each force brings.
In our class, Tyler balanced the need for structure and need for freedom.  He had a clear focus for the class and clear methods about how to get there and he didn’t hesitate to bring us back when we started straying too far afield.  Yet he clearly organized the class based on what we needed, he would take off on what someone said and we’d do something fun, he would improvise a lesson when what we were doing wasn’t working, and he encouraged us to go off on our own.  He didn’t worry if we didn’t do it perfectly or up to his standards.  Were we all close enough to move ahead?  That’s what mattered. 
Another set of opposing needs he balanced was the need to get the task done and the need to support members of the group.  Again, he did it masterfully.  He never criticized although he would point out things we could do differently if they were getting in the way of our playing.  He encouraged each member of the class, he focused on the progress we were making, he never looked impatient or bored himself although he is a master musician with abilities way beyond what anyone in the class could do.  He stopped when someone needed help and would go over things until each person got the basics of what he was trying to teach.
As leaders, we’ve all struggled with how much direction to give and how much to let our reports take the lead and the responsibility.  We’ve all struggled with how much to focus on the task and how much time we should take making sure everyone is on board and everyone can keep up.  We can all learn from Tyler.
Next post:  Peak Experience 2 and how to use a polarity map to balance the opposites.
Plum Cluverius, PCC is an executive coach with over 30 years experience in leadership development.  She lives and works in Richmond, Virginia.

2 Responses to "Productivity and the Balance Between Discipline and Freedom"

  • Susan Buniva
    September 3, 2012 - 6:55 pm Reply

    That tension between process and content has parallels in so many parts of life from personal to professional, spiritual to political, and certainly well beyond. Balance is the ever present challenge for all of us.

  • Joyce Hann
    September 6, 2012 - 11:59 pm Reply

    Would I be off-base to suggest that your example illustrates that good “doers” are not always good “teachers” or leaders in the absence of this skill?

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