An HR business partner, Mary, and I were recently strategizing how she’d approach a difficult conversation with a coworker. As we were wrapping up, she said to me, “I appreciate how you are always kind.”
I was both touched by her words and a little confused. “Is it that unusual?” I asked.
“You’re the first HR person I’ve worked for who can balance difficult feedback with support and compassion,” she said. “A former coworker told me I needed to disconnect from people at work.”
As an HR leader, this advice—to a fellow HR person, no less—initially struck me as odd. Upon reflection, I had a hunch as to why this former coworker offered it to Mary. She is deeply empathetic, to a point where she can struggle to be straightforward and clear when giving feedback or pointed direction. In telling her to disconnect from people, I suspect that her former coworker was advising her to establish stronger boundaries so that she is able to withstand the emotional response that often occurs when delivering challenging feedback.
Leadership Is a Spectrum
In this, I recognized a familiar challenge of leading individuals, teams and companies towards success and fulfillment of potential. Leadership style emerges from a series of decisions in how one navigates dualities. In simpler terms, as leaders we are—consciously or not—constantly making choices about how we show up and what we prioritize. Most decisions fall on the spectrum of two opposing extremes, like profit vs. people or decisive vs. collaborative. Each choice then presents two options: to favor one side of a spectrum, or create something new and balanced from reconciling both.
In my experience, there is a tendency to lean too heavily on one side of the spectrum or the other. For example, when approaching difficult conversations, most leaders are prone to being too soft or too aggressive. Like Mary, we can be so empathetic that we take on the pain or discomfort of others, which limits our ability to speak directly and openly. Or we can choose to emotionally disconnect from others so that we may speak directly with less concern for their feelings, leaving us at risk of sounding harsh and even uncaring.
When a leader’s style leans too heavily on one side of a duality, you can feel it. I, like nearly all of us, have worked for such organizations. At the extreme, they are either wonderful to work for but struggle to produce results, or demoralizing to work for and yield massive and rapid results. What leaders at such companies might not realize is that spectrums bound by opposites present a false paradox; we do not have to choose only one end of a spectrum in our leadership style. We can choose to knit together aspects of each side to create our own magical blend of leadership and bring balance and stability to the organization.
Balancing Action and Feeling
Earlier in my career, I did not grasp that dualities present only a false paradox. This manifested in a leadership style that skewed too far towards one side—the problem-solving, get-it-done side. It took a series of deaths—first of my husband, then of my dad, and lastly of my mom—in short succession for me to discover how much I favored action over feeling. Where I had once been able to push any pain or negativity aside in favor of head-down toughness, I no longer could. These losses left me in a well of grief so consuming that I could not compartmentalize or ignore them. I had no choice but to sit in my suffering, make it known to others, and ask for patience from colleagues as I tried both to remain productive at work and heal from so much loss at home.
In finally accepting my own vulnerability, I no longer steamrolled my feelings with actions. Instead, I was able to create something new from reconciling this duality. As I balanced my strength-first style with greater sensitivity, I found that I could simultaneously maintain a solution-oriented mindset while also supporting others as they worked through problems. I could hold high expectations while also acknowledging the humanity and fallibility in everyone. I could give clear feedback while remaining compassionate. I could listen and still lead my team forward.
Where once I brought only my head to work, I was now bringing my heart along, too. I grasped that to rely only on one side of a duality is to possess a lopsided and therefore less effective—and less humane—leadership style. The goal, I now understood, was not either/or, but both/and. The goal was to embrace all of life’s inherent dualities and learn to weave opposing sides together to create something new, something stronger, and something more nuanced and productive.
Work and Life Intertwined
What 2020 made undeniable to all of us was a fact that anyone who had experienced tragedy, illness, hardship, or loss had already learned: there are no boundaries between work and life. The two are inextricably blended. We can give to our professional lives only what we have; and what we have is a function of how we take care of ourselves and are taken care of as whole humans—not just as employees.
Today’s leaders pretend otherwise at their peril and the peril of the organizations and people they lead. Failure to implement safety measures for a pandemic that rages in the external environment, for example, will jeopardize the health of those internal to the organization. Failure to ignore issues of systemic racism and inequitable hiring and promotion practices will disenfranchise and demoralize employees and create a toxic culture. Failure to support the mental health and wellbeing of employees will eventually lead to reduced productivity, burnout and potentially attrition.
What exists beyond our work lives exists in them and vice versa. Leaders today must embrace this duality. Doing so requires a blended leadership style, one that encompasses and benefits from the creative tension of attempting to reconcile opposites. Ultimately, what blended leadership unlocks is a new path forward that allows leaders simultaneously to be equal parts agents of the company and advocates for all employees.
Become a Blended Leader
To achieve a more blended leadership style, I encourage leaders to focus on four essential components. Each represents an inherent duality, and the goal is to bring together the best of both in order to minimize the caveats of each alone.
- The head and the heart. The ability to think strategically, logically and linearly, while also considering your own feelings and those of others—giving equal attention to content and context.
- Courage and compassion. The courage to make and carry out difficult decisions with compassion, i.e., always remaining aware that major decisions often mean change, and people must be supported through the natural adoption challenges of change.
- Driving for results (the what) and investing in people (the how). Setting high expectations for all—yourself included—and holding yourself and others accountable in meeting them, while simultaneously acknowledging that people need support and room to make mistakes to learn and grow on the road to meeting and achieving ambitious goals.
- Principled and flexible. The ability to establish and adhere to guiding principles, consistent standards and behavioral norms, while also remaining flexible and open to new ideas and information that can help improve upon and adapt expectations.
Blended leadership asks us to observe our words, behaviors and actions in order to assess where we presently are so we know where we must go. This kind of reflection takes courage. You can probably guess what I will say next: as you boldly look within, be compassionate with yourself. The point of reflection is neither to self-flagellate nor self-congratulate; where in a duality you presently sit is neither good nor bad. Each side has its pros and cons. The purpose of self-reflection is to gain greater awareness of which side you favor so that the nature of the work you must do to reconcile any duality reveals itself. And it is from this balanced place, this blending of opposites, that a new generation of leaders will be able to ground themselves and rise to meet the challenges of today’s dynamic world.