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How to Manage the Leadership See-Saw

Great leadership requires constant adjustments in style and approach

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Image Credit: Midjourney

Leadership is a balancing act. Almost every quality of great leaders can be overdone and its polar opposite can be needed on occasion (except for integrity). For example, being outspoken is a great quality, but there are also times to hold back from giving your point of view so that others speak first. 

Great leadership requires constant adjustments in style and approach to get the best out of a broad range of people. 

The one balancing act we speak too infrequently about is the balance between, on the one hand, knowing, doing and executing – in effect being the go-to expert who can help the team solve any problem and, on the other hand, enabling, orchestrating, and not knowing – something I call “spanning.” 

In today’s knowledge economy, expertise is highly valued. Leaders use their expertise to gain credibility, to win over the loyalty of their team, and to solve team problems. Expertise driven leaders add value because of their ability to provide answers, do the work, and control quality and risk. 

However, expertise driven leadership keeps the leader from stepping out of the details, letting the team wrestle with problems, and taking a broader view. Spanning leaders add value by focusing on priorities and direction, by connecting across the organization, and by tapping their broad network for information and perspective.

“The single biggest way to impact an organization is to focus on leadership development. There is almost no limit to the potential of an organization that recruits good people, raises them up as leaders and continually develops them.” – John Maxwell

Keeping Your Balance

Every leader needs to understand how to add value to the job, how to get the right work done, and how to interact with people. Leaders must learn to lead at times as the expert and at times as a non-expert – that is, as a spanner who can span across knowledge domains. The core challenge is how to balance the two approaches.

Karen is the Chief of Internal Audit and a deep expert in audit. She is very intelligent, highly personable, and brings much needed depth to her team. The challenge Karen faces is not about abandoning her expertise – those strengths are definitely valued. However, her company also needs her to weigh in on the broader challenges they are facing, not just represent her functional perspective. 

She needs to be able to drill deeply when necessary and quickly come back up to the 30,000-foot level. In effect, her challenge is a balancing act between the depth of expertise and the breadth of spanning.

The Spanning Checklist

  • Understand what you do that adds the greatest value to the team and organization – the things that only you can do. As an exercise, think about a leader you admire and value.  Write a list of all the things this person does that adds value to you and to the organization, especially the things that are unique to him/her and that make them so valued. Look over that list and circle the qualities you need to be practicing more often.  Note the ones you think you already do well and keep doing those.
  • How much do you really need to know? Do you need to know the details, or do you need to understand how all the parts fit together? Ask your mentors and senior leaders.
  • How much of your time and energy should be spent on being the expert and how much in the spanning space? Ask your manager and your manager’s manager how they think your time should be divided. Then monitor your time in a given week to make sure you are roughly sticking to those guidelines.
  • At times you will need to dive deeply into the details to understand a problem or to resolve a conflict. The challenge is then how to come back up to a higher level and not get stuck in the details. As you find yourself diving deeply, ask why you are doing so.  Ask yourself who else should be taking this deep dive with you or even partially on their own.  If you bring your direct report with you for each dive and each meeting, you will find it much easier to turn over work to them, because they have been on the journey with you.
  • To delegate more effectively, avoid delegating that simply dumps an issue on someone else while you remain hands off. That is ditching not delegating. Instead, jointly create a set of milestones, next steps, and a timeline with the person you are delegating a task to. Do so by asking questions, not by dictating. Then, touch base on progress at each milestone, during which time you can provide updates on new insights you have gained and you can track that work is progressing as expected. You can also give feedback along the way. 

The balancing act that great leadership requires is achievable. However, you have to be thoughtful about when the opposite of what’s in your comfort zone is needed. You cannot simply default to your preference every time.  

Dr. Wanda T. Wallace, managing partner of Leadership Forum, coaches, facilitates, and speaks on improving leadership through better conversations. She hosts the weekly radio show and podcast “Out of the Comfort Zone” and is the author of You Can’t Know It All: Leading in the Age of Deep Expertise. Learn more at leadership-forum.com, wandawallace.com, outofthecomfortzone.com.

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