Some individuals perpetually talk too loudly in public – and more so on the mobile phone. Other people too are habitually soft-spoken; in a meeting with a large group of people or against a background noise, you have to strain to hear them.
Effective speakers know how to modulate their voices so the volume is neither too high nor too low for their fellow participants or for bystanders. Bob Kaplan and Rob Kaiser believe that effective leadership requires a similar ability.
Whichever managerial attribute – for example, delegating, looking ahead or questioning your boss – that the situation requires, the idea is to set the volume on that attribute to the right level, neither too low nor too high. In setting expectations, for example, you should not set goals for your staff too low or too high. Do not misunderstand: expectations ought to be set high, even somewhat higher than people think they can achieve, but not as high as to be demotivating or even alienating.
The idea of leadership volume, along with the need to adjust to the right level for the situation is intuitively easy to grasp; but far from the prevailing idea of performance or performance improvement. What prevails is, “The stronger, the better.”
Kaiser and Kaplan think that maybe a belief in the perfectibility of humankind drives this mental model. Maybe it is the innate motivation to be competent, a built-in desire for proficiency. Maybe it is an abhorrence of being or feeling merely adequate. In any case, a more-is-better mentality predominates. But they show in their book, The Versatile Leader, more is not always better.
When it comes to performance improvement, somehow the collective managerial mind-set places most of the emphasis on deficiencies, the areas in which managers lack capability. Take the often used phrase, “strengths and weaknesses.” What is a weakness except, literally, the lack of a strength? It is striking that the implicit model makes no places for strengths overused.
On a the typical to-what-extent scale, the best score is a 5, “To a very great extent.” But that seemingly good grade (5) does not tell when the attribute is being overused. Being very direct is obviously different from being too direct. That is a gargantuan blind spot in the leadership field. Virtually all assessment tools do a partial job. They tell us where we are deficient, weak, and not strong enough. Inadvertently, the designers of these tools have failed to build in a way to indicate where we are, take our strengths too far, where we talk too loud.
The trick is to get the setting right for the situation. Of course, no single, fixed setting on any managerial dimension will work in all circumstances. The authors believe that the idea of volume control goes all the way back to Aristotle, who postulated that what is good, virtuous, and effective in thought and action is the midpoint between deficiency and excess. This is a large part of the art of management: reading accurately what the situation requires and applying just the right amount of that skill or attribute, neither too little nor too much. One reason that this is harder to do that it may sound is that managers who overdo it think they are doing less of it than they are in reality. According to Kaiser and Kaplan, managers who overdo it actually think they are underdoing it.
Managers have no trouble with the idea of turning up the volume on a deficiency. But the prospect of moderating a strength actually scares them thinking that they will lose the edge or not being on top of things. The fear is needless, and largely due to misunderstanding. Managers wrongly think that to moderate or to modulate means moderation in all things. What it in fact means is to make an adjustment when the volume is turned up too high for the situation – to eliminate the excess that wastes time and energy or otherwise detracts from high performance.
Complementary Pairs of Opposites
Leadership involves two pairs of opposing approaches. One pair, the how of leading, consists of forceful leadership and enabling leadership. Forceful leadership is assuming authority, making your presence felt, taking stands, holding the ground, setting high expectations, and making tough calls. For some people forceful leadership is the epitome of leadership; indeed its very definition.
Yet forceful leadership is not complete without its complement, enabling leadership, which consists of empowering people, delegating authority and responsibility, involving direct reports in decisions, seeking their inputs, showing appreciation, and providing support.
The more versatile leaders are on this basic duality, the more their coworkers regard them as highly effective. But rather than versatile, most managers are lopsided, typically louder on the forceful side and quieter on the enabling side.
The other pair, the what of leading, consists of strategic leadership and operational leadership. Strategic leadership is about positioning a unit, however big or small it is, for the medium to long term. It involves vision and orientation to growth, expansion, and innovation. Operational leadership is about getting results in the short term. It is about focus, efficiency, orderly process of getting things done. There is a similar tendency for strategically oriented leaders to slight the operational side and for operationally oriented leaders to slight the strategic side.
On these big pairs or any others in leadership, managers have a way of going one-dimensional, one-sided, to the point where, smart as they are, they cannot identify the other side; and this becomes their blind side.
Balancing Both Sides
An effort to turn down the volume on one side will benefit from a simultaneous attempt to raise the volume on the other side. Catching ourselves (before we overdo it) and forcing ourselves (to do what we usually underdo) often go in tandem. Having the ability to get the volume right on both sides of a pair of opposites, and to escape the chronic tendency to be overpowered on one side and to be underpowered on the other side is called dialectical intelligence. “The sign of first-rate intelligence is to hold two opposed ideas in the head while retaining the ability to function.”
Leadership requirements are best defined, Kaiser and Kaplan conclude, in terms of pairs of opposite good things to do. Each of these dualities creates tension that a mature manager knows how to manage and resolve. Mature managers do not polarise a pair of opposites; they see the two sides as complements. They are versatile in the sense that nothing in their mindset, no arbitrary bias in favor of one side or prejudice against the other side, prevents them from reading the situation’s requirements accurately and meeting those requirements deftly. Despite the tension between the opposites and the tendency for managers to be lopsided, versatile leaders are able to get the volume right on both sides.