Polarity Thinking

A Powerful Tool for Building Leadership Capacity

These were two of our beloved German Shepherds, Tara (on the left) and her brother Shiva. They were Polarities in many ways: Agentic & Communal, Cognitive & Affective, Firm & Soft

Vulnerability & Vision

More recently, we’ve added another important factor to our Polarity work. Polarity Maps often add extraordinary insight on a cognitive level. But there’s also an emotional level to being able to fully benefit from those insights. We’ll explain with an example.

Systemic Vulnerability & Vision

OK, so hopefully this makes sense so far. Individual leaders can identify the Vulnerability that supports the current over-privileging, see the Vulnerability in light of their Values, and then choose a Vision of who they would be if they were better honoring the tension of that Polarity.

Awareness ≠ Change

As we described in The Big Lie in Leadership Development, raising awareness is never enough. Our brains are designed to run on cheap fuel. It takes a lot of energy to run our prefrontal cortex, the seat of executive functioning (reflection, response flexibility, intuition, empathy, perspective taking and seeking, body regulation, attuned communication, etc.). Our brains would much rather run the low-energy subcortical areas that have us be on automatic pilot or in “habit mode,” and that is where we live the vast majority of our day. No book, workshop, or “peak moment” changes our brains. In order to change how we think, and then how we act, we need to view capacity-building as requiring a daily practice. This doesn’t have to take a long time. Our brain changes through many short cycles, throughout the day, of action and reflection. This short article, Guaranteed to Optimize Your Leadership Effectiveness in Minutes a Day, describes a powerful way you can quickly increase your leadership capacity.

  • Stability & Change
  • Task & People
  • Humility & Confidence
  • Smoothing Out & Creating Friction
  • Facilitating & Leading
  • Taking Charge & Empowering
  • Supporting & Challenging
  • Consistency & Flexibility
  • Giving Advice & Listening Well
  • Operational & Strategic
  • Transparency & Discretion
  • Short-Term Profit & Long-Term Sustainability
  • Team/Department Needs & Organization Needs
  • Competition & Collaboration
  • Action & Reflection
  • Managing My Job & Managing My Career
  • External Client & Internal Client (Employee)
  • Centralize & Decentralize
  • Short-Term & Long-Term
  • Idealism & Realism [a great polarity for those in public service]
  • Work & Family
  • My Needs & Your Needs (in personal relationships)
  • If there’s an emergency or critical deadline it may be totally appropriate to Take Charge rather than put equal attention on Empower. But a leader who consistently Takes Charge at the expense of Empowering will be an autocratic leader who stifles engagement, collaboration, and creativity and generates suboptimal results. The same is true of a leader who overly Empowers, leading to an Abdicating leadership style.
  • Similarly, in times of great tension and strain a leader may rightly put more focus on Smoothing Out rather than Creating Friction. But a leader who consistently over-privileges this quality will avoid necessarily conflict and neither challenge nor hold people accountable.

How Contexts Drive Thinking and Action

We are all deeply impacted by the contexts in which we work and live. They impact how we think and what we think about. When we’re looking to balance an important polarity, like Individual & Collective, it is vital to examine and take into account what is currently being driven by the organizational culture in which we work. To lead in the way I want to lead, will I be swimming along with the organizational current, or against it? How will I be seen by others?

Using Polarity Maps for Lasting Change and Transformation

The power of a Polarity Map comes from its integration through ongoing application through action and reflection. As mentioned in the section Awareness ≠ Change, simply raising awareness has little if any impact on how we think and then act. It does not develop new neural pathways.

How can any polarity map lead to lasting change?

  1. Choose a polarity that’s deeply meaningful to you. One that tends to be out-of-balance in your life, and one that, if managed more effectively, would have a significantly positive impact, leading you to be even more aligned with your higher values, as well as happier and more fulfilled. Change is hard no matter what. If often requires feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable along the way. Choosing one that really, really matters is a vital first step.
  2. Identify the professional or life value that will particularly be strengthened when you are more balanced on this polarity. This is so important, because change is almost always uncomfortable. What’s important enough to be willing to experience discomfort? In a leadership role, “By better managing Task & People, I’ll actually drive more sustainable results and, equally important, I’ll feel good about my impact on those who report to me, the people who are in my care. I’ll be more aligned with the kind of human I aspire to be, and I’ll leave a positive wake on others.”
  3. Create a polarity map based on that polarity. Do this when you can be relaxed and optimally reflective and self-aware. Most people find it easier to fill in the positive aspects of the pole they over-privilege, and the negative aspects of the opposite pole. See if this is true of you.
  4. We have a document on this page that leads you through how to draw a Polarity Map, if it’s not already clear.
  5. Ask yourself what would be uncomfortably vulnerable or challenging about living the both/and. This is a very important reflection. For example, a leader might be able to cognitively see the value of balancing Confidence with Humility, but still have a hard time actualizing this insight because even appropriate humility feels “weak” and “soft” and contrary to the image they have carefully crafted over decades of leadership.
  6. Reflect on this map regularly. In the mornings. Before important meetings. Ask yourself what it might look like, or feel like, to act more from a BOTH/AND place. Then, after the meeting, ask yourself how you did, and how that impacted you and others.
  7. Our brains have a built-in negativity bias. According to psychologist Rick Hanson, we are “Velcro” for negative experiences and “Teflon” for positive ones. Focus 80% of your attention on the positive impacts of your awareness-inspired action, on you and on others. Give a little attention to missed opportunities.
  8. At the end of the day, again take out the polarity map. Reflect overall on the extent to which your were a little more aligned with it. For one of the authors, “To what extent did I relax in Being, instead of being agitatedly engaged in continual Doing? How did that feel? What was the impact on my life?”
  9. We summarize this process in this short article. It’s particularly important to check which aspect of ourselves is doing the reflecting. Is it our compassionate, kind, curious, loving Inner Observer, or our cruel, harsh, judgmental Inner Critic? A mindfulness practice is very helpful in learning to shift to the Inner Observer.

Using Polarities Maps with Others

Many of our organizational clients have used polarity maps with their teams, or with other individuals, to great success. The maps open dialogues, often break impasses, and lead to generation of novel solutions.

  1. There’s a particular “flow” that tends to work best. Start with the pole that the other(s) tend to over-privilege. First validate their values, and also their concerns (the downside of the other pole). Then it will be easiest for them to hear the “other side of the story.” Re-visiting the Consistency & Flexibility map, for example, if your colleague or team tends to be biased toward Flexibility, start there, and do the map for Flexibility & Consistency. If the opposite is true, start with Consistency.
  2. The polarity map can be used to structure dialogue. Remember that if people are biased toward Consistency, it’s because they are particularly wanting to avoid the down-side of over-privileging Flexibility. Using the map below, the conversation might go something like this: “We of course need to have the alignment that comes with Consistency (top left). And we absolutely need to avoid the chaos that would come with lack of clarity for our customers and staff (bottom right). But at the same time we have to make sure we don’t become stagnant and complacent (bottom left). So how can we build in some Flexibility (top right) without descending into chaos or confusion?”


We hope this article has sparked your interest in deepening your understand and application of Polarity Thinking. Please reach out with any thoughts or questions. We’re happy to respond.



Building individual and organizational capacity through executive coaching, organizational/team effectiveness consulting and leadership development.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Clear Impact Consulting Group

Building individual and organizational capacity through executive coaching, organizational/team effectiveness consulting and leadership development.