What most leadership advice gets wrong

Sean Hanrahan
May 8 · 5 min read

“Just as discipline and freedom are opposing forces that must be balanced, leadership requires finding the equilibrium in the dichotomy of many seemingly contradictory qualities” Jocko Willink

Much of the current leadership advice reads like a check-list of the qualities required to be a good leader. A good leader is: collaborative, strategic, empathetic, transparent. The list goes on. If only it were that simple.

A good leader can also be authoritative, detail-orientated, detached and secretive.

Good leaders go beyond a check-list of qualities. They recognise that many of the desirable traits of leadership conflict with one another and become experts in navigating this conflict.

Life is complicated, and an approach that works in one context can cause catastrophic failure in another. The sports star who becomes a coaching disaster, the successful business person who becomes a failed politician or the technical expert who becomes the manager from hell.

Sometimes the only thing that separates a virtue from vice is context.

Leadership is about finding the balance between the opposing qualities that are required to lead in the situation at hand. However, finding this balance is rarely as simple as finding the ‘middle ground’.

Often, the middle ground is a ‘no-mans land’, a compromise designed to prevent disagreement. While, either extreme of two opposing qualities will rarely be effective either. Most situations require us to lean one way or another.

In my experience as a manager and coach, I have found that there are three essential opposing qualities to balance:

  • To be collaborative yet authoritative
  • To be compassionate while remaining detached
  • To be humble yet confident in your own ability

Collaborative yet Authoritative

“Diversity in counsel. Unity in command” Cyrus the Great

The world is a complex place and one individual’s perspective is rarely enough to make a good decision. This is why collaboration has rightly become a popular buzz-word in leadership and business books alike.

However, there are times when collaboration does not serve the needs of the group and the leader is required to push forward without consensus or consultation. Sometimes a leader just has to make things happen.

The types of decisions a leader is required to make will fall on a spectrum between collaborative and authoritative. On this spectrum, there are five types of decisions, that range from most to least collaborative:

  • Adopting the advice of the team
  • Reaching a consensus with the team through consultation
  • Postpone decision making (rarely a good idea)
  • Largely ignoring the advice of the team but making some adjustments based on feedback
  • Ignoring or not seeking the advice of the team

Under ideal circumstances, nearly all leadership decisions will fall on the collaborative side of the spectrum. However, ideal conditions are rare and some environments require regular authoritative decision-making.

When making authoritative decisions, good leaders offset their impact on team morale by explaining their reasons and accepting responsibility if they are wrong.

Delaying a decision until there is more information may be required in some rare circumstances. In large organisations or bureaucratic environments, this type of decision often becomes the norm and productivity suffers accordingly.

Compassionate yet Detached

“People do not follow robots.” Jocko Willink

Good leaders minimise the influence of their emotions when making decisions. They carefully and dispassionately weigh the pros and cons before making a decision that aligns with their strategic goals.

However, a leader should also be finely attuned to their own and their team’s emotions. Humans are emotional creatures, who only trust those with whom they have an emotional connection.

The personal relationships between a leader and their team members are one of the most important factors in whether a team is successful. Without trust, there is no relationship.

Good leaders continually demonstrate that they care about their people and their shared mission. To do this they:

  • ask their team about their lives and interests
  • share some personal information about themselves
  • encourage new ideas and reward those who show initiative
  • demonstrate through their actions that the welfare of their team is more important than their own

The key is to build relationships that find the balance between friend and colleague. A leader must go ‘above and beyond’ to provide support to struggling team members but know when to cut their losses and remove those who are unable to perform.

Humble yet Confident

“Humility is a knowledge of our weaknesses, confidence is a knowledge of our strengths, and ego is something dangerous with none of the former and a skewed sense of the latter.” Ryan Holiday

Humble leaders do not over-estimate the accuracy of their opinions and seek out those with conflicting viewpoints. They are recongise when they should defer to the expertise of others and readily admit when they are wrong.

However, they also have the confidence to make decisions that at times, run counter to the opinions that they sought out. They know when the time has come to stop asking for advice, and start doing.

Good leaders have the utmost confidence that in the end, they will achieve the right outcome. This may mean a number of false starts, but through the process of making decisions, reviewing the outcomes and listening to others they adjust until they reach their goal.

This confidence should not silence the doubts of the team but infuse them with the belief that success will come. Sometimes this will mean building up the confidence of the team, even when the leader doesn’t feel it themselves.

Conclusion

While these six opposing qualities are the most important in my experience, there are many others that good leaders are able to balance.

What’s important is the recognition that many leadership qualities conflict with one another.

By seeing these conflicts and understanding when to adjust their approach a leader can be the person the team needs in almost any situation.


The inspiration for this article came from reflecting on my own leadership experiences after reading the book ‘The dichotomy of leadership’ by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in becoming a better leader.

Sean Hanrahan

Written by

Senior Strategist at major utility in Melbourne Australia. Football player and coach. Interested in leadership, history, business and strategic thinking.