How Top Leaders Grapple with Thorny Dilemmas

Photo by  Nagy Arnold  on  Unsplash

Photo by Nagy Arnold on Unsplash

Would you rather breathe in? Or breathe out? Quick, pick one! Okay, now you’re stuck with that decision…

Kind of ridiculous, right? Obviously, you need to breathe in and breathe out to stay alive. And yet we often confront thorny dilemmas as if we must choose one way forward.

As a seasoned leader, you’re lucky to get the problems other people haven't solved. Many of these have no clear cut, “one size fits all” solution. They tend to be multi-faceted and messy. 

Making headway on these kinds of problems calls for another way of thinking. You might call it “both/and thinking.” It’s also been called “Polarity Thinking.”

Here is a simple description of Polarity Thinking.  It’s the ability to see and leverage interdependent pairs of what are sometimes termed paradoxes, dilemmas, tensions…or polarities.

 It’s a lot easier to illustrate some common polarities than it is to describe what they are. We’ve already introduced breathing in and breathing out as an example. Rest and Activity is another. Did you know the human body fluctuates between the need to rest and the need to be active about every 90 minutes? Polarities are in us and they are around us.

 Here are some others that resonate with me:

  • Continuity and Transformation

  • Thinking and Feeling

  • Structure and Flexibility

  • Competition and Collaboration

  • Challenge and Support

 If I asked you to pick one of these and stick with it no matter what, would you go for it? Pretty unlikely. And if you did, there would probably be disastrous results over time. Each polarity needs each other in order to succeed over time. Yet we often inadvertently view dilemmas as if we had to pick a single way forward.

For example…

Bryan is CEO of a large construction company with many offices in the Northeast. The company has a stellar reputation and has thrived for 50 years. Lately, Bryan has seen signs that new technological developments will transform the construction and engineering industries in ways that are hard to predict. Already, 3-D printers have made a difference in how buildings are constructed. There are many other developments emerging.

Over the past year he’s raised this concern with his people, who’ve responded with, “Why fix what isn’t broken? We’re doing fine! Business is booming, profits are up…why are you so worried?” Whenever Bryan brings this up, his people dismiss it. It seems they are at an impasse.

Here’s an example in the nonprofit sector: 

Meredith is executive director of an agency that serves homeless people. Currently they provide shelter and housing. Meredith believes her agency’s clients also need to have access to employment supports. She’s been talking with another local agency about partnering on employment supports. They also provide shelter and housing. Her senior team opposes the idea. “Are you kidding? Collaborate with SCI? We compete for the same funding! If we start working with them, we’ll end up losing our contracts and community support.” Meredith is at an impasse as well.

Polarity Thinking can have transformational power if you introduce it to your team and your organization.

 Here are some of the results:

  • Helps you recognize situations where there’s more than one course of action. Moreover, these are interdependent. They have to work together to achieve your greater purpose. It's like breathing in and breathing out helps you stay alive. 

  • Allows you to gain a richer understanding of the dynamics at play. This let you consciously manage those dynamics to fulfill your greater purpose and avoid your greatest fear of what could happen. For example, Meredith's team is currently focused on the bad that could happen as a result of embracing collaboration.  When they come to see that collaboration and competition are polarities, they’re in a better position to capitalize on the pluses of both.

Polarity Thinking enables fluid progress toward your goals. It also reduces stuckness and unproductive conflict. I’m guessing those are all benefits that would thrill you!

What are some first steps? Here are a couple I’ve discovered so far:

Look for clues that a polarity is at work: Impasses that don’t resolve themselves. Problems that appear solved by one solution but then come back. Fierce disagreement over which is the “right” way forward. They all have the flavor of stuck energy.

Recognize there may be more than one constructive course of action. Are there two directions that appear to be in opposition? How can you envision them working together to fulfill a greater purpose? 

In Bryan’s example, he and his people are both right. The company needs to capitalize on its stellar reputation and strong history of success to meet an uncertain future. The longer they argue within an either/or way of thinking, the less prepared they will be for the future.

For those of you intrigued by Polarity Thinking, I’ve included links to a couple of articles below. Also, there’s a wealth of information available on the internet if you google “Polarity Thinking,” “Polarity Partnerships,” or “Barry Johnson.”

Please, check it out. It could permanently transform the way you approach thorny dilemmas. 

Are You Facing a Problem? Or a Polarity?

Using Polarity Thinking to Achieve Sustainable Positive Outcomes

 As always, please consider leaving a comment in the Comments Box. Was this post helpful or relevant? What other leadership topics would you like to see me tackle?