This is the third in our series of posts around the idea of “managing by cliches.”
Recently, I’ve become more and more aware of a paradox of management behavior: a leader’s greatest strength is often their greatest weakness. (I’m not sure if this is actually a “cliche” — but I’ve said or thought it enough that it has become one in my mind, at least!). That is, when an outstanding skill or technique is over-used, or mis-applied (or used without self-awareness), it can create a negative effect more than equal to all of the good that is done when the skill is applied properly.
The Meaning of Moderation
Since this precept was first inscribed on a column of the Temple of Delphi in Ancient Greece, innumerable philosophers have weighed in on its meaning. An alternative translation of the phrase is “nothing in excess.” Does this mean that one should always be moderate in word and deed (i.e., never going to extremes of forcefulness, or passion)? Or, rather, does it mean having balance (i.e., balancing one strength with other, even if neither are “moderate” in any way)? And, what can this tell us as managers 27 centuries later?
An Illustration: Calming the Waters vs. Taking A Stand
I once had the privilege of working for a very fine person who had an extraordinary ability to keep his team calm and steady when being buffeted by emotional storms and operational obstacles (or outright intra-company warfare). He naturally adapted to circumstances without complaint and accepted the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” with good cheer — always keeping his team on an even keel. However, these same gifts were used even when his team expected him to truly “take a stand” and “fight” for their needs — contributing to their feeling that they were the “bald-headed step-children” (pardon the expression) of the organization, harming both productivity and morale (e.g., “why was that other department allowed to order a state-of-the-art, high-speed color printer that they use once a quarter when we have to beg for six months for even a $79 black-and-white one that we use constantly?”).
The leader’s tendency to try to keep the peace in the organization — which was highly valued when resolving conflicts between team members — came at the expense of his own team when it was never deviated from. How, then, could the “moderation in all things” admonition be instructive in this situation?
Achieving “Moderation” Through Self Awareness and “Picking Your Spots”
Through reflection and self-awareness, a leader can come to know both their own gifts and tendencies (i.e., “I’m good at building consensus and creating unity;” etc.), and the limits of these tendencies (i.e., “But sometimes consensus isn’t what we need”). This recognition can help them avoid over-using or misapplying their skills by (to use another cliche) “picking their spots.”
In this case, if the leader was aware of his tendency to always make peace, he could be alert to situations that called for very different actions — i.e., “I’d like to smooth this over and keep everyone calm, but this time I really need to take a stand, even if it causes hard feelings with other departments. My team needs me to stick up for their interests — and it’s the right thing to do.”
By correctly picking his spot to make a stand, the leader built trust and credibility with their team — making the team that much more willing to “grin and bear it” and adapt to organizational demands or slights when necessary to do so for the good of the company. In this way, moderation (or balance) is created by knowing when a different (or even opposite) skill/tendency needs to be demonstrated. Through self-awareness, the gift isn’t over-used, and it retains its strength and value the next time it is rightly applied.
From your experience, what are other examples of skills that — when used to excess — can throw situations out of balance?