Power, Balance, and Cream

My most enduring memory of Bleeker’s first leadership workshop is of meekly standing-by as a conversation that I was moderating seemed to slowly spiral out of my control. An impromptu, two-person debate on the nature of leadership was becoming increasingly heated and I had no idea what I should do. Should I take sides? Should I moderate? Should I continue doing nothing? 

One debater passionately argued that every person is capable of effective leadership. The other was adamant that the most effective leaders were born, not made. A classic nature versus nurture debate and neither side seemed willing to budge from their position.

Every participant who attended our workshop that day was an incredible leader, by our estimation. Some led teams at big, global companies (like Nike, Coca-Cola and Goldman Sachs) and others had less traditional, although uniquely valuable leadership experiences (an international diplomat, an Army Ranger, the founder of an early-stage tech AdTech business). And although the debate included only two of the workshop’s participants, I could sense that a dividing philosophical line had been drawn in the group.

I fall into the nurture camp. I wouldn’t be much of an educator if I didn’t. But in the years since that first workshop, I’ve come to understand the mindset of those people who believe that true leaders can only be born. It all depends on your perceived relationship between leadership and power.

If you define leadership as an ability to make people do what you want them to do, the “leadership as nature” argument seems reasonable. Here’s how that argument might go:

“When making people do things that might be against their will or might not be in their best interest, power is the most effective lever. Power - like speed - isn’t something that you can learn. You can learn how to optimize your power potential. You can learn how to make the best use of whatever power you have. But as sure as you’re born with a natural speed limit, you’re also born with a natural power limit. The most powerful are born, not made. 

I don’t agree with this argument, but I can understand its egoistic appeal, especially if you’re one of the ‘lucky’ ones who's born on the powerful side of the tracks.

The flaw in this argument is an overestimation of power’s importance to leadership. Leadership isn’t an ability to make people do what you want them to do. This approach may deliver short-term results, but in the long-run, it’s destined to produce increasingly diminished gains from increasingly downtrodden people. In the last year, we’ve seen too many examples of powerful people in highly-visible leadership positions whose history of making people do things against their will become exposed for what they really are: bullies. Leadership is not power. 

Leadership is balance.

Specifically, leadership is the ability to balance the needs of the collective (i.e. team, company, or country) with the needs of the individuals who make up the collective. This balance isn’t necessary for paternalistic or maternalistic reasons - it’s necessary for the collective to fully realize its potential. The good leaders orchestrate enthusiastic cooperation towards a common goal. The great leaders elicit group cooperation and provoke incredible individual performances.

In “Smarter, Faster, Better,” Charles Duhigg interviews Lorne Michaels, who explains his philosophy on team building and describes his role in leading the writers and performers who produce Saturday Night Live season after season. In this interview, Michaels describes his leadership role as maintaining the balance between cooperation and performance:

“SNL only works when we have different writing and performing styles all bumping into and meshing with each other,” he said. “That’s my job: To protect people’s distinct voices, but also to get them to work together.” 

The potential for rotten behavior aside, the greatest danger of leading through power and control is the invisible suppression of individual performance. Employees who are conditioned to fear embarrassment or the loss of their job may do exactly what they’re told, but will they ever surprise you with a wonderfully creative new idea? They’ll show up on time, but how often will they willfully arrive early or stay late?

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me, with each talented young person whom I interview, each business leader whom we advise and each new revelation of bad executive behavior that I read in the news that momentum is building towards a new way to lead. We believe that this new way starts with the transition away from leadership as power and towards leadership as balance.

That’s one of the reasons why we’ve created Cream: a team assessment that we’re eager to get into the hands of as many leaders as possible. The central idea behind Cream is that the most effective leaders are always looking for ways to balance team cooperation and individual performance. Our assessment helps leaders understand where that balance is missing and delivers targeted recommendations on restoring it. 

Because balancing cooperation and performance is essential to every winning team, Cream can help people-leaders from every industry and profession identify opportunities for growth. Small teams, large teams, for-profit and not-for-profit - we’ve made Cream for all of you. Just like great leaders, great teams, too, are made and not born.

And it all starts with balance.