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What is Balanced Leadership and Why is it Important?

Leadership is complex, but you wouldn’t believe it from all the LinkedIn posts or thousands of books on the subject which repeatedly try to boil it down to the simplistic.

Leadership is complex, but you wouldn’t believe it from all the LinkedIn posts or thousands of books on the subject which repeatedly try to boil it down to the simplistic.

By Tim McEwan, Managing Director, Leadership Advisory and Roderic Yapp, Leadership Consultant

Pick one aspect of leadership and you’ll find dozens if not hundreds of books or articles extolling that one approach as the key to success. There are books about how the art of leadership is all about empowering people, for example, or providing a supportive environment.

Unfortunately, leadership is not so simple. If it was all about empowering your people and delegating responsibility, then why does command and control exist? Sometimes, you do need to take charge and tell people what to do. Especially when reacting to a crisis, at which point empowering your people might be an inappropriate response.

This simplistic approach to leadership has never sat well with us. At its core, leadership is about behaviour. How you behave changes depending on context. How you behave at a funeral is very different to how you behave at a stag or hen weekend. You haven’t changed, but the context has, and you modify your behaviour accordingly.

Leadership is about matching behaviour to context

It’s the same with leadership. Leadership is all about behaviour, and behaviour is shaped by context. Good leadership is when you as a leader understand the context and can choose your behaviour to get the best out of your people in any given situation.

Take the example of empowering people. If you and a couple of friends saw a car accident happen right in front of you as you were crossing the street, would you gather them into a circle and discuss how to respond, calmly delegating tasks after a considered conversation? Or would you act now, instantly, because there may be lives at stake and you cannot afford to spend time listening to everyone’s opinions and empowering them? To take the example further, say you were a trained paramedic, wouldn’t it be even better for you to tell a friend – in no uncertain terms – to call for an ambulance right away while you attend to the scene to see how you can help?

Although 90% of the time leaders would benefit from empowering their people, this example shows that there are circumstances when that’s just not appropriate and could lead to much worse outcomes than being decisive and taking charge.

For years we kicked around this idea of leadership as an interaction between behaviour and context. Tim came up with the analogy of graphic equalizers that used to be common on stereos and hi-fis, where you dial up certain behaviours and dial down others. Roderic came at the topic with the idea of seeing leadership behaviours as operating on a spectrum or series of spectrums.

Whichever analogy speaks to you the most, the fundamental point is the same: everything is a balance, and so is leadership. Just think of how many times in a day you might say to someone, “it depends,” or “it’s a bit of both,” or “we need to find a balance.” We use these phrases all the time, and so do you.

There is no right or wrong approach

Returning to the question of command versus empowerment – this is a spectrum. Leaders need to be able to understand the context they’re in and then choose where they sit on the spectrum of behaviours so they can either retain control and make the decisions themselves, or they can give control and empower people. The important point to remember is that both can be right and both can be wrong depending on the context, but that neither is always right or always wrong.

For most leaders, this means building a toolbox of leadership behaviours to choose from, so they’ll have the right tool available at the right time. But it also means starting by being aware of where you naturally sit on any given leadership spectrum, so you’ll know which behaviours you might need to develop and which you might need to rein in.

Becoming aware of your boundaries

Rod, for example, is quite open about the fact that he’s “a bit of a control freak”. He has what he describes as “an inbuilt bias” that makes him think he can do things to a really high standard. This can often be helpful. However, when it comes to leading a team, he has to remind himself of that desire to control everything so he can get more comfortable with empowering people. This basically means that, when working with experienced people who have their own fields of expertise and competence, he needs to set expectations and clarify what the team is trying to achieve and get their views on the best way to get there.

In other words, self-awareness is a prerequisite for balanced leadership. You need to be aware of two things:

  1. The behaviours you find most natural or comfortable.
  2. What you’re good at, and what you’re not so good at.

The exact behaviours and skillset don’t matter because we all have behaviours we fall back on, and we all have different skills and skills gaps. The point is to be aware of your boundaries, where you may need to work on the behaviours that come less naturally to you, and where you need to reach out to others who have the expertise you lack.

Achieving balance is a process, not an end state

The truth about balanced leadership is that, while we believe it is the best approach to effective leadership, none of us is ever actually in balance. This is a process, not an end goal. Put another way, you should always be seeking balance, but you will never quite achieve it.

Another good way to think of this is the Three Circles Model devised by John Adair in his book Action Centred Leadership published in 1973. The concept may be almost 50 years old, but it is still relevant to today’s business challenges.

The Three Circles are made up of Team, Task, and Individual. At different times, you will need to focus on one or more of those circles, but as a leader you will very rarely hit that sweet spot in the middle. There will be a time when you have to hunker down and be task focused to the exclusion of the other factors. But if you haven’t put in the time previously on individuals and teams, you won’t complete the task as effectively as if you had.

So you focus on the task at hand. You complete it. Following the model, your next step as leader should be to check in with the team and review performance, then check in with everyone on an individual basis to make sure they’re ok. Each circle is important, and you’ll need to focus on each on at some point in order to lead effectively, but rarely will you be able to achieve balance between the three.

This point becomes obvious when we look at balance within organisations. It’s often easy to see where a company is out of balance. A sales-based firm might prioritise revenue growth at the expense of delivery, for example, leading to poor customer reviews. Or a rapidly-growing scale up might be held back by CEO who insights on having every major decision run past them, rather than developing the knack of effective delegation.

Just think of huge corporations – a Barclays or a GlaxoSmithKline, say. These businesses are so big, so complex, and operate in so many regions that achieving balance is almost impossible. Yet they must always seek to avoid being unbalanced in ways that could jeopardise future growth.

So it is with you as a leader. You are almost certainly not a balanced leader right now, and it’s unlikely you ever will achieve this state of perfection – we certainly haven’t, despite having literally written the book on the subject. But that’s not the point. The journey is more important than the destination, as they say. Seek balance in your leadership and you will benefit, as will your team, your organisation, and your career.

It’s because leadership is so complex that we wrote a book about it, titled The Balanced Leader. Over the next few months we’ll be exploring many of the ideas and practical tips from the book to help you become a more balanced leader. In the meantime, if you’d like to order your own copy of the book Matthew Syed said, “raises the bar on leadership thinking”, then you can do so here.