Leadership – Finding Balance

What does it take to produce healthy plants? It takes the right amount of water, sunlight, fertilizer, care, and attention. Too much water or too little care and sunlight will negatively affect your plants. The best gardeners provide the right amount of each ingredient to help the flowers grow and blossom. In a similar way seasoned business leader find the right balance in leading others and running the business. Effective leaders are versatile. They are able to adjust their style and behavior to fit the needs of the situation. They make prudent judgments in each of the following situations.

1. Customer Focus versus Making a Profit

“Customer Focus” is critical to compete in today’s marketplace, but what happens if you take it too far? One executive said that if you provide too little service or the wrong kind, the customer will leave. On the other hand, if you provide too many amenities and services the customer isn’t willing to pay for, what happens? Your company may go broke or price itself out of the market. For example, Burger King lets customers “have it their way” as long as the company continues to meet its profit goals. The business leaders that thrive over the long haul are those that can balance both satisfying customer needs and making a profit.

2. Too Many Goals versus Too Few Goals

Only a limited number of goals can be pursued at the same time. Leaders need to take care in choosing what to emphasize. Having too many goals is as bad as having no goals. Ineffective leaders focus on everything – cost reduction, quality, new technology, inventory turns, new product development, reengineering, and teamwork. C.P. McCormick, Jr., CEO of McCormick Company, advises: “Focus! We realized we had too many ideas and were pursuing all of them.” Treating everything as important makes nothing important. Effective leaders have their priorities clear and generally establish and pursue three to five key goals.

3. Plan versus Do

Planning is important, but so is execution. Some leaders over plan and under execute. Of course there are some leaders who do just the opposite. They’re busy “doing a lot” but accomplishing very little. Is there a “right” balance? It depends. In some situations 60-minutes of planning makes the implementation go more smoothly. In a crisis situation you have no time to plan-quick action is required.

4. Results versus Process

Some leaders only focus on results. In meeting after meeting they ask, “What’s the bottom line?” Results are important but the process of how things are done is also important. However, putting all your attention on process is also wrong. Some leaders go to the other extreme and confuse activity with results. The beehive atmosphere makes them falsely conclude that a lot is being accomplished. The old adage, “Don’t confuse activity with results” is still very relevant. Effective leaders find the right balance in emphasizing both process and results.

5. Firm versus Flexible

There are times to be firm and there are times to be flexible. One Vice President stated, “You have to be solid and strong in your principles and beliefs, but also make it a point to be compassionate and understanding.” The overly flexible leader feels that if he stands up to people, they won’t like him. Having a strong need to be liked, he avoids taking a firm stand on anything. On the other hand, the overly firm leader is rigid and sees every issue as black and white, right or wrong, good or bad. But in reality the world is often gray. Effective leaders know when to be firm and when to be flexible.

6. Talking versus Listening

Leaders spend time stating their ideas and opinions on a range of business problems and opportunities. But they also spend time listening to customers, suppliers, and employees. Ineffective leaders are often out of balance in terms of talking to much and listening to little. Can you overdo the listening side of the equation? I’ve observed one leader who was such a good listener and facilitator that his people didn’t know his core values and beliefs.

7. Providing Too Much Coaching versus Too Little Coaching

An important part of a leader’s job is to coach employees on how to be more effective and efficient. However, there’s a difference between too little and too much coaching. Too much can frustrate initiative. It’s like the parent who helps his child with his homework so much it becomes the parent’s homework and not the child’s. The leader who provides excessive coaching and guidance has a need to be needed. He thinks, “They can’t do it without me – they need my direction.” On the other hand, too little guidance can cause failure. Sometimes failure can be the best thing, life lessons often come out of failure. Other times it can be catastrophic – in the case of accident, injury, or other severe loss. One thing that distinguishes good leaders from average ones is their ability to just the right amount of coaching.

8. Facts versus Feelings

Making good decisions is also an important part of a leader’s job. Getting the facts is important. But the facts or data are often incomplete. Your feelings are also important to consider before making decisions. Some executives fail to identify the danger signals because they repress their feelings as if feelings are something to be avoided.

9. Criticism versus Compliments

Leaders provide constructive criticism so associates know what they did wrong and how to improve. The best leaders provide candid feedback. They tell people what they need to hear in order to improve. In addition, leaders provide praise, recognition, and positive feedback on a regular basis to build confidence and reinforce desired behavior.

I observed a high school football coach make 41 negative comments and 2 positive comments during a game. After the game I asked a player if he liked the coach. Was the coach effective? Were players improving their skills? He said, “Everyone hates the coach. All he does is yell at you – you can’t do anything right.” Obviously, this coach was way out of balance on this dimension of leadership.

10. Change versus Status Quo

Certainly some amount of change is needed to continuously improve the operation. But what happens when a leader initiates too many major changes all at the same time? The resulting chaos and confusion makes the organization shut down. Too much change is as bad as no change. Effective leaders plan and implement a reasonable number of changes.


Finding the right balance doesn’t mean moderation in all things. Rather it means being versatile and flexible. It means using the appropriate style to fits the needs of the situation. Some leaders derail because they are extreme in one direction or the other. They are unwilling to adjust their style. Help your employees grow and develop by providing the right amount of direction, support, coaching, listening, etc.

Reference: Kaplan, R.E. and Kaiser, R.B. “Developing Versatile Leaders.” MIT Sloan Management Review ( Summer 2003 ).