5 questions for leaders who need to do both

At the time I thought it was the coolest thing, ever. Mostly because I wanted my Mom to treat me the same way.

Our next door neighbor let her kid, Grant, pick.  Would you like macaroni and cheese or a hot dog for lunch?  Will we read a book today or go to the movies?  Do you want to sign up for riding camp or take piano lessons?

There was no picking lunch food at our house.

When I complained about the unfairness of it all, Dad told me our neighbors owned a business and that someday Grant would take over. This meant he needed to know how to make decisions, and his mom was helping him learn to do that. Wow, even cooler. No family owned biz for us.

After I grew up and went to work for companies other people owned, I appreciated how the Adams family had helped Grant learn to make decisions and problem solve. Important business skills to have.

Yet one day it hit me:  all the questions posed to young Grant were either/or choices.

Having learned more about business and people and how wrong some things could go sometimes, I wondered if being weaned on the “tyranny of the or” as James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras call it in Built to Last, caused Grant to grow up and be a leader who attacked business as a series of problems to be solved.

Or perhaps somewhere along the way had he learned about both/and?

Organizational success in the years ahead will hinge on the ability of employees at all levels to manage seemingly irreconcilable trade-offs – between short-term earnings and long-term growth, competition and collaboration, structure and emergence, discipline and freedom, and individual and team success.

~Gary Hamel, Harvard Business Review, Moon Shots for Management

Problems and Polarities

It’s the rare leader who successfully recognizes and manages the differences and distinctions between one-time either/or problems and ongoing both/and paradoxes.

  • Shifting funds to make next year’s business plan a reality is a problem to be solved:  either we spend money to upgrade the phone system now or we wait another year.
  • Maintaining an appropriate balance between cost and quality is a both/and polarity to be perpetually managed: what’s the best way to ensure a good customer experience and maintain a reasonable cost structure for doing so?  How do we get our management team to focus both on achieving results and establishing relationships with their teams?

Either/or problems have definite solutions and end dates, result in kudos for successful resolution, and allow us to check something off our to-do list.

Both/and polarities are never-ending, an unappealing reality in a hurry-up-and-get-it-done world. They’re tricky to navigate because both answers are right.

How leaders can commit to doing both

As you think about your leadership style, ask yourself:

  • How will I recognize those situations that require an either/or solution and those that need a both/and approach, and handle both appropriately?
  • How can I both thoughtfully plan and drive action to achieve my goals?
  • What do I have to do to both manage and lead myself and others?
  • What steps must I take to have continuity and yet produce innovation?
  • What’s my plan for time for self-care and fulfilling the items on my to-do list?

Tricky waters for leaders to navigate for sure and so important to do so!



One Response to 5 questions for leaders who need to do both

  1. Great post. We teach our exec ed students to reframe “or” choices as poles on a continuum. Leaders are always moving in the space between the poles and are often least effective if they spend too much time too close to either end.

    The other corollary that I’d pass along is that we teach people to substitute “and” for “but” in their everyday speech as a way to engage in multi-dimensional problem solving rather than confrontations over what can be seen as stark “or” choices.

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