Saturday, April 12, 2008


In the introduction to the book Polarity Management - Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems, Dr. Barry Johnson says that the bad news about life is that we all face a large number of unsolvable problems. However, the good news is that, in many cases, we can stop trying to solve these problems and begin to manage them by addressing these problems as Polarities.

According to Dr. Koestenbaum, the concept of polarities is at the heart of the Leadership Diamond model. From his perspective the points of the Leadership Diamond can cause conflict and create unsolvable problems as described by Dr. Johnson. However, this conflict brings us tension, and with the tension comes the energy necessary to manage polarities.

For example, lets take a quick look at Vision and Reality. Vision implies looking into the future, imagining what could be, creating something that does not currently exist, and not being limited by barriers. On the other hand, Reality can imply being focused on what currently exists, understanding barriers, knowing what tools and resources are available, and not being blinded by any wish or day dream that takes you away from the truths of life.

The conflict between vision and reality is not a problem to be solved, it is a polarity to be managed. Dr. Koestenbaum tells us that the ability to hold the conflicting concepts of vision and reality in your mind simultaneously is an essential part of the leadership mind. Being able to identify polarities, understanding the gap between two polar concepts, and feeling the tension created by the pull of both is part of being a leader. Koestenbaum suggests that we:
Ask for clarity, but accept ambiguity, demand certainty, but adapt to surprises.

Here are a few of the common polarities that we face as leaders:
  • Team - Individual
  • Democracy – Dictatorship
  • Work – Play
  • Life – Death
  • Reality – Fantasy
  • Rich – Poor
  • Man – Woman
  • Active – Passive
  • True – False
  • Us – Them
  • Proactive – Reactive
  • Centralized – Decentralized
  • Principles – Rules
  • Flexible – Inflexible
  • Empowered – Powerless
  • Internal – External
  • Organized - Unorganized
When you objectively view each side of a polarity you find that each contains positive and negative qualities. The challenge for the leader is to work to maximize the positive, while minimizing the negative characteristics of both ends of the spectrum.

In this process of understanding polarities, a leader discovers that life is rarely entirely in one camp - the world is not "organized OR unorganized". It is "BOTH organized AND unorganized" at the same time. Businesses are not "focused on teams OR individuals", they are "focused on BOTH teams AND individuals". Life is rarely Either/Or, it is usually AND.

What we experience is that life is a balance between polarities. Constantly moving. Shifting from one form to another. Offering first the positive and negative qualities of one side of the polar equation, and then moving toward the other pole.

The strong leader is one that is prepared to work in this world of ambiguity, and help others navigate through the confusing waters filled with polarities.

In the book The Art of Happiness at Work, the Dalai Lama points out that in western society we are taught to choose between polarities - we are schooled to pick between "either/or". However, in a world that is consistently filled with "both/and" a choice between "either/or" will be frustrating because neither choice will satisfy. Learning to hold competing thoughts simultaneously, and to understand the positive and negative qualities of both is necessary to be a successful leader.

If any of you (my faithful readers) are interested in doing a post analyzing a polarity that you are interested in, post a comment with your email address and I will set the blog to allow you to be an author. I would love to have your contribution to the discussion.

In a future blog post we will look at how to use a Polarity Map to help identify true polarities, and understand the positive and negative attributes of each side of the polarity.