Why Great Leadership Means Balance

Leadership is a matter of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and discipline … Reliance on intelligence alone results in rebelliousness. Exercise of humaneness alone results in weakness. Fixation on trust results in folly. Dependence on the strength of courage results in violence. Excessive discipline and sternness in command result in cruelty. When one has all five virtues together, each appropriate to its function, then one can be a leader. — Sun Tzu

Good leaders are able to maintain a balance of many qualities and strengths. Bad leaders tend to have extremes in one area or another.

For example, a tyrannical leader may get things done through intimidation and bullying. He gets a certain amount of results and his subordinates act primarily out of fear (fear of being fired or disciplined, etc). The problem is that this kind of team or organization will exhaust itself quickly.

Fear will only get you so far. Stress and pain will multiply and the team will burn itself out. Fear and intimidation can be a great motivator for concentrated action in the short term. But that’s all it is–a short term play.

Organizations filled with fear exhibit lots of turnover, which imposes significant costs over the long term.

A tyrannical leadership style will also filter down through the entire hierarchy and foment tension, suspicion, backstabbing and conflict among team members. There are vanishingly few companies that can thrive with this kind of dynamic in the modern economy.

On the other extreme is a leader who is not controlling enough. He or she takes a very accepting and tolerant approach, but to the point of no discipline.

Lack of discipline can stimulate creativity, but imposes massive costs in the short and long term because the organization cannot make any real progress. It will fail to stay competitive and will eventually sink into a mess of mediocrity and under-performance.

This story about a woman-only company in the UK that became an absolute trainwreck and failed within 2 years of founding demonstrates an extreme example of lack of discipline:

Making close to half a million in our first year should have meant profit, but this was wiped out by high salaries and accounting errors by staff. Then, when we began having cash-flow problems, Sarah signed herself off sick with stress for a month. She also confessed she’d been dodging calls from people who were due payment, thus ruining my firm’s reputation.

By then I was back and forth on a plane between Britain and the U.S. dealing with fractious staff in London and barmy LA producers.

My general manager was nowhere to be found, bills hadn’t been paid and the tension in the office was palpable.

Poor discipline can be just as bad as extreme discipline. Both will build up over time into errors and mistakes, and those mistakes will cost money.

Despite the author’s conclusion, gender had nothing to do with her company’s failure. Lack of managerial discipline and weak leadership was the primary problem.

The leader must set the tone for the entire team and guide them.

It’s a fine line that every leader must walk in order to strike the perfect balance between strength and empathy, between discipline and flexibility, between challenging your team members and trusting their judgment.

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