In my last post, I mentioned two recent peak experiences I wanted to share with you. The first, my guitar class at the Augusta Heritage Center, www.augustaheritagecenter.org taught the benefit of balancing the discipline of a relentless focus on the basics with the freedom to break out of the plan and play with what shows up. The second peak experience took place in a very different venue--a group of eight executives participating in an intensive leadership development program. This was a group who took play very seriously. Two of the group's ground rules were "have fun" and "don't have too many rules."
It sounds like a recipe for a leadership vacation rather than a serious learning opportunity, but this group took their development as leaders very much to heart. I may never have laughed so hard and so long in my life as I did with them, but this group never showed up in a session without being thoroughly prepared and completely engaged in what they were doing. As a result, each of them walked away a better leader than when they came, with new tools, new skills and new awareness.
As leaders, we all struggle with balance--how much control to exercise and how much freedom to give, how much to follow the rules and how much to play it by ear, how much to focus on the task and how much to focus on people, how much time we should spend working and how much time to relax.
Barry Johnson, in his book Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems, talks about the importance of recognizing and managing the many polarities that make up an organization's life. By "managing" he means acknowledging the existence of these polar opposites, identifying the up and down sides of each, and then looking for ways to maximize the upsides of both and minimizing the downsides of each. He is advocating a conscious choice rather than reacting to the negatives produced by pendulum swings of behavior. This is tricker because the upside of one pole is the downside of the other.
Let's take the group I mentioned above as an example. One of the polarities they had to manage (and they managed it well) was the polarity between work and play. If you look at the upside of work, you could identify things like:
- accomplishes goals
- provides focus
- creates common goals
What is the upside of play?
- creates energy
- creates bonds
What is the downside of work?
- creates stress
- uses energy
- can ignore relationships
What is the downside of play?
- lack of productivity
- lack of focus
- can become a distraction
- can lose a sense of direction
As you can see, the upside of one pole in the polarity is the downside of the other pole. What we often tend to do is swing from one to the other as we adopt one pole because we're experiencing the downside of the other pole, go too far to that side, experience the downside of that pole, then swing to its opposite.
For example, a group has a tight deadline and everyone focuses solely on the work needed to meet the deadline--engaging in day long meetings, skipping meals, working long hours. There is a lot of benefit to that kind of focus and teams often coalesce around that task. At some point, though, the line is crossed and the emphasis on work becomes dysfunctional. Conflict might be suppressed, people stop communicating, information is lost, people start burning out to the point that the team starts falling apart.
The pendulum swings to the other side as people seek relief from the stress. It might begin with people showing up late for meetings. It might show up in increased distractibility or drinking. When the downsides of play start showing up, leaders clamp down again.
The team I described who didn't want too many rules balanced the two upsides. They laughed and joked during team meetings, but always came back to the task at hand. We met outside in beautiful weather whenever possible and just being in fresh air lent an element of play to whatever we were doing. We took time at the beginning of our work to get to know each other and build trust, which made the balance between work and play easier to achieve. The group stayed on task, but not rigidly. Every ground rule created served the group's goal--and there were no rules when none were needed.
Part of a leader's ultimate success, whether it be as a team leader or the leader of an organization, is to discover the operative polarities, be observant enough to recognize where the group is and be flexible enough to make the shifts needed to keep the group in the upside of both poles.