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The Test of a First-Rate Intelligence

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The Center for Creative Leadership identified it as the second-most important strategy leaders can develop.

F. Scott Fitzgerald deemed it the test of a first-rate intelligence.

Congress is obviously clueless about it.

What is it?

Polarity Thinking

You see, all too often we need our opposites to understand the bigger picture, the viewpoints or elements we’re overlooking. In our increasingly polarized world, though, the beauty of working with our opposites seems to be entirely overlooked.

If you live in the Upper Midwest, autumn colors are beginning to peak. Why are they so beautiful? It’s the pairings of contrasting colors–those opposite each other on the color wheel. Reds and greens. Oranges against the pure blue sky. Purples and yellows. Richness comes not from sameness but from contrast!

And so it is with opposite points of view. Barry Johnson of Polarity Partnerships  has developed key tools for helping leaders, teams, and organizations work with systems of polarities in which each viewpoint actually needs the other for long-term success. Working without the other “side” is as dumb as, well, as if one of the turtles in this pond decided it didn’t need the other, ever.
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Yes, they can take turns sunning themselves out at the tip of the log, and might take a few laps solo, but over time, if the turtle population is to be sustained in their pond, they need each other!

You’re Already Working With Polarities

Polarities are nothing new–from the yin and yang of ancient philosophy to the current themes of the paradoxes of leadership, we’ve worked with them for years. Here are a few core polarities:

  • Individual AND Community
  • Short-Term AND Long-Term
  • Personal Freedom AND Community Values
  • Top-Down AND Bottom-Up
  • Collaboration AND Competition

Can you see any where Congress gets an epic fail? How about other leadership teams you’ve worked with? And, where difficult, gnarly issues have been resolved enough so that the parties concerned are working together, can you see which ones are being leveraged well?

For your own purposes, consider these questions:

  • How well are you leveraging polarities key to your current goals, change initiatives, relationships, responsibilities, or life purposes?
  • Are you able to partner with those who think differently? Or is energy being lost to debate and contention?
  • Do new leaders toss out everything the old leaders were doing, without considering where some continuity would not only be reasonable but valuable?
  • When one side “wins,” does the pendulum of change swing back, only to swing again when the implemented solutions create new problems?
  • Have you studied books such as Being Wrong and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion to grasp how little we belong trusting that we’ve carefully developed the positions we hold?

These are just a few ways to think about whether you’re handling them well. If not, again, the Center for Creative Leadership points to leveraging polarities well as the second-most important strategy leaders can develop. The first is continuous learning, so digging into polarity thinking is a way to engage in that strategy as well!

pactsurvey-1Check out the tools at Polarity Partnerships or Barry’s book Polarity Management. If you’re an educator, my next book, Unleashing the Positive Power of Differenceswill be out from Corwin and Learning Forward in November. Barry was an advisor to the project and mentor for me as I adapted his work for K-12 Education. I hope it will help teams consider how well they’re implementing the Common Core State Standards, balancing academics and all the other areas in which children need to grow, building teacher knowledge as well as using technology, and so many other polarities key to education success.

Action AND Reflection is another key polarity. Take some time to reflect on these ongoing tensions that most affect you. Then, take action to improve how you leverage them.

Related Posts

Yes, Polarity Thinking is Crucial For Leaders!

Competition or Cooperation?

Doing the Work AND Preparing to Do the Work

Must We Be For or Against?

Jane Kise

Jane Kise is a consultant and executive coach. The founder of Differentiated Coaching Associates and author of over 20 books, she works with schools and businesses worldwide to help create environments where everyone can flourish.

This Post Has 3 Comments
  1. With varying degrees of success, many leaders get their strategy making to this point and either stop or their process stalls. A major reason is the lack of understanding and commitment to the steps required to build more effective strategic leadership practices and a strategy dialogue in the operating groups below the senior managers. These groups and especially their leadership teams frequently do not know how to proceed and there is no consistent in-house resource to assist them. The net effect is the sense of excitement and momentum that was generated at the top of the house in the earlier stages of the strategy process is lost and the strategy team of employees is derailed before it is even gets started. One of the best ways to address this is to identify and train a cadre of high potential line managers in the middle of the organization that can serve as champions of the strategy process to those both above and below them.

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