Masterful chefs fuse diverse ingredients into a coherent, tasty whole. When cooking, they perform a kind of culinary balancing act, deftly bringing spices and seasonings into perfect harmony. Each element of the dish touches the tongue with its flavor, and yet none overwhelms the rest.

Great leaders combine an assortment of skills into a single repertoire from which they inspire and guide their team. They somehow embody seemingly contradictory traits, which they put to use in service of the organization.

1) Leaders are both confident and modest.

You need self-assurance to lead, but you also must be able to set aside your ego. Being a leader is not about making yourself more powerful. It’s about making the people around you more powerful. People follow leaders who have a healthy sense of self-worth, and yet are humbled by their responsibility.

Egotistical leaders use others to advance their self-centered pursuit of perks, titles, and other status symbols. Eventually, they disillusion their people and stunt the growth of the organization. Confident-yet-humble leaders derive satisfaction from serving others.  This sort of leader inevitably unlocks the potential of people and equips them to further the company’s mission.

2) Leaders communicate passionately and listen patiently.

Listening to others improves ideas, sends alerts to unseen issues, and allows for closer relationships with teammates. The following are several quotes that are meaningful to us regarding listening:

“Big people monopolize the listening. Small people monopolize the talking.”

“The first duty of love is to listen.”

“Listening is the way to gain wisdom because everything you say, you already know.”

“Effective leaders allow others to tell them what they need to hear, not necessarily what they want to hear.”

“One of the best ways to persuade others is with your ears, by listening to them.”

3) Leaders give encouragement, and they are never satisfied.

Effective leaders encourage people and affirm their work, and yet constantly push them to even greater performances. A team’s primary motivation comes from a passionate leader who positively expresses dissatisfaction with the company’s status along with a sincere belief that the team can take things higher. Leaders should stretch people, but they can only do so to the extent that they demonstrate care and goodwill towards those they lead. 

4) Leaders protect their people from danger and expose them to reality.

Most people want a leader who insulates them from difficulty, rather than mobilizing them to overcome it. People need adversity in order to grow; otherwise they plateau. A leader’s responsibility is not to protect people from every difficulty, but to partner with them in facing life’s trials.

5) Leaders blaze the trail and show the way. 

Leaders are not afraid to buck convention and strike out in a new direction. However, they get no pleasure from living as mavericks. Leaders want to link up with others. They push into new frontiers only so that they may better guide others down the road.

6) Leaders initiate change while standing for values that don’t change.

One job of a leader is to help people to identify what habits and assumptions must change in order for the company to prosper. At the same time, leaders must ask: which values and operations are so central to our core, that if we lose them we lose ourselves? In short, leaders must bring about change without surrendering the organization’s identity.


Which of the six “balancing acts” do you find most challenging? Why? Share your reflections by posting a comment.

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