The Yin-Yang of Leadership

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Robert E. Kaplan and Robert B. Kaiser

There is no better single expression of ideal leadership than the ancient Chinese concept of yin and yang. The Chinese saw nature as the interplay of dualities that had both complementary and opposing characteristics—sky and earth, day and night, water and fire, active and passive, male and female. Neither element in the pair takes prominence or precedence, but each is useful and valid and reinforces the other in a positive dynamic. The familiar yin-yang symbol represents this perfectly, showing two black-and-white teardrop shapes, curled and flowing into each other, continually adapting to each other to form a continuous and complete circle. The elements are negative images of each other, yet they are interdependent and inextricable.

When it comes to leadership, the importance of this idea is a practical, not a philosophical, matter. Leaders are no strangers to the idea that skill sets come in pairs. They often refer to themselves as “balanced” or not, as “task-oriented” or “people-oriented.” Despite this awareness, however, few leaders are able to combine opposite approaches in a holistic way. They usually resolve the tension between the two sides simply by taking a position and favoring one over the other. In fact, lopsided leadership could be described as dysfunctional duality, in which one element of a pair of strengths has grown to dominate and to stunt the other.

Some of this is the result of conscious decisions leaders make on a day-to-day basis, but much of it is tacit and unconscious, the product of leaders’ innate qualities and experiences. All their lives they have learned to define their leadership persona on the basis of being one thing and not the other: If I am bold, I can never retreat. If I am a visionary, it is small-minded to worry about operational details. Over the course of a career, one strength hypertrophies while the other atrophies.

Forceful vs. Enabling Leadership
In the course of our work, we have concluded that there are two core dualities that confront all leaders: the need to be forceful combined with the need to be enabling, and the need to have a strategic focus combined with the need to have an operational focus. Together these dualities constitute the “how” and the “what” of leading.

In the simplest terms, forceful leadership is taking the lead, and enabling leadership is making it possible for others to lead. The dynamic tension between the two sides determines how people work together. Strategic leadership is looking ahead and positioning the organization for the future, and operational leadership is about getting results in the short term. That dynamic tension determines what organizational issues managers focus on.

In our work with senior managers, we find lopsidedness over and over again, and nowhere is it plainer than in the statistical relationship between forceful leadership and enabling leadership. Roughly 7,000 managers ranging from midlevel to CEO have been rated by roughly 60,000 coworkers using our proprietary assessment tool called the Leadership Versatility Index, and the findings have consistently shown a strong negative correlation. That is, the more forceful a leader, the less enabling that individual is likely to be. Conversely, the more enabling a leader is, the less forceful he or she is likely to be. In another study, we found that when managers were rated as doing “too much” of either forceful or enabling behavior, there was a 90% chance that they were also rated as doing “too little” of the other behavior.

Although most leaders overplay either the forceful or the enabling side of their repertoire, we have occasionally encountered a breed of executive who is deficient in both. One executive we knew had an outwardly strong personality—a resonant voice, a firm handshake, a confident air—but was strangely marginal in his own team meetings. In fact, someone unfamiliar with the situation would not have been able to tell that he was the team leader. This kind of “laissez-faire” manager is essentially passive and disengaged and, not surprisingly, has been consistently rated by coworkers as even less effective than lopsided leaders.

Strategic leadership and operational leadership are inversely related. There the negative correlation is dampened a bit by the low incidence of leaders who are rated as too strategic—indeed, most leaders aren’t strategic enough. Nonetheless, when managers were rated as doing “too much” of either strategic or operational leadership, there was about an 80% chance that they were also rated as doing “too little” of the other behavior. The reality is that big-picture, visionary types tend not to be good at implementation, and the masters of implementation tend to ignore or underplay strategy.

The overall pattern of could hardly be clearer. Lopsided leaders are the rule and not the exception.

The Importance of Versatility
According to the concept of yin and yang, the harmonious vibration between opposites constitutes the very stuff of existence. Versatile leadership arises from the continuous vibration between pairs of opposing impulses: to be forceful and at the same time enabling; to be visionary and at the same time to get things done.

Being a versatile leader is more than having a wide repertoire of skills. It is having a wide repertoire of complementary skills that can be adapted in infinite combinations, each specific to the task at hand. The idea is to modulate or adjust your approach, including cranking up to the maximum setting if necessary. In fact, it is completely consistent with the idea of versatility to take a strength to the extreme if that’s what the situation calls for, just so long as that is not your default approach to every challenge.

The more versatile the leader, the more effective he or she is. We have found an exceptionally strong association between versatility scores and ratings of overall effectiveness. Versatility defined as striking a balance on both the forceful-enabling and strategic-operational dimensions accounts for about half of what separates the most effective leaders from the least effective leaders.

It is a worthwhile standard to shoot for. Even Steve Jobs, as successful as he was, seemed to realize he could have become a better leader by modulating his forcefulness and intensity. Toward the end of his life, reflecting on his infamously harsh style, he admitted, “I was hard on people sometimes, probably too hard.” If he had lived longer, he might have mellowed a little without losing his edge, just as he had improved operationally. Even very successful leaders can improve by striving for versatility—maximizing the benefits of their natural strengths while containing the costs and limiting the collateral damage.

© 2013 Robert E. Kaplan and Robert B. Kaiser. All rights reserved.
Excerpted and adapted from Fear Your Strengths: What You Are Best at Could be Your Biggest Problem, by Robert E. Kaplan and Robert B. Kaiser by permission of the publisher, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

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About the Author(s)

Robert E. Kaplan and Robert B. Kaiser Robert E. Kaplan is founding partner of Kaplan DeVries, Inc., which specializes in assessing leaders for selection and development. Robert B. Kaiser is president of Kaiser Leadership Solutions, which provides innovative tools for improving performance. They are coauthors of Fear Your Strengths: What You Are Best at Could be Your Biggest Problem (Berrett-Koehler, 2013), from which this article is excerpted.