Harvard Business Review

Every Leader Needs to Navigate These 7 Tensions

Summary: In decades past, executives were usually taught to practice command-and-control leadership. Today they’re often advised to be more nimble, more adaptive, and less controlling. The truth is that most executives need to be able to move back and forth between those two leadership styles. This article looks at seven tensions that executives need to manage as they choose how to behave in different contexts.

In recent years, articles have claimed that old-style command-and-control leadership is “out” and a new way of leading is “in.” Instead of telling people what to do, leaders should ask them open-ended questions. Instead of sticking exactly to plans, they should adjust goals as new information emerges. Instead of working from the gut, a leader should rely on data to make decisions. And so forth.

Let’s call this old-fashioned leadership model traditional and the new one emerging. Here’s the challenge: in the current environment, most executives need to be good at both styles to succeed. That is, any leader who relies solely on positional authority will run into trouble; business, technology, and workforce expectations are changing much too quickly for that approach to be sustainable. But at the same time, any leader who fails to strive for perfection, who never tells and only listens, and who shares but never holds power, will also struggle to be effective.

In surveys and interviews with hundreds of leaders worldwide, we uncovered seven core tensions between the traditional and emerging leadership approaches. Those tensions create significant stress for leaders, as they are often unsure of what competencies, skills, and behaviors to exercise in a particular context. In this article, we describe the tensions, outline the dangers in ignoring them, and suggest coping strategies for balancing the two approaches.

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