Navigating Polarities: Using Both/And Thinking to Lead Transformation by Brian Emerson and Kelly Lewis (Paradoxical Press, 2019)
What are the big take-aways?
A “polarity” is a pair of apparent opposites that are actually two equally valuable, interdependent parts of one dynamic whole. A few of my favorite examples of leadership polarities are these pairs of competencies: well-grounded and visionary; authentic and politically savvy; confidence and humility; reliability and constructive risk-taking; doing and being.
The authors’ formal definition of polarities (p. 3) is that they are “paradoxical situations in which two seemingly opposite yet interdependent states need to coexist over time in order for success to occur.” And these tricky paradoxical situations are what Emerson and Lewis explore throughout this spectacular little handbook: how to spot, map out, navigate – and, importantly – leverage polarities to our benefit (as individuals and as organizations and other collectives).
Why do I like it?
I like that the authors’ writing style itself navigates a polarity beautifully: it uses clear, simple language to convey knotty, complex concepts! I also like that the book provides a number of useful examples that are realistic and relatable in terms of the frequency with which we encounter them in life and especially at work, such as the polarities of candor and diplomacy, collaboration and competition, structure and flexibility. The book explains how to identify whether a dynamic is a polarity to manage, a problem to solve, or a combo; how polarities work; and how to use the authors’ Polarity Navigator for gaming them out as an action-planning tool.
If you are already familiar with the popular-for-good-reason polarity management model originally postulated by Barry Johnson, and are wondering whether Navigating Polarities has anything new to offer, it does. Its Polarity Navigator tool is what distinguishes Emerson and Lewis’s approach; it “builds on Johnson’s sensemaking map by incorporating…the thinking of Richard Rohr, Parker Palmer, Brene Brown, and Smith and Lewis” (p.51). In the Polarity Navigator, Emerson and Lewis add a mapping component for embodying a “Transformational Third Way” by integrating and transcending the poles while acknowledging the risks and vulnerabilities associated with the Third Way. So, the four-part process begins with (a) naming the poles, (b) listing each of their benefits and over-uses, and then (c) moving to the space on the Navigator “where we can honor the differences between the poles, hold and reintegrate both, and eliminate neither” (p. 67), balanced with (d) thoroughly recognizing what feels risky about the Third Way. If this description sounds complicated, it will appear much more straightforward when you view the elegant graphics in the book.
In what situations would this be useful?
In my experience, if a leadership or organizational issue that’s treated as a problem-to-be-solved keeps arising repeatedly in short- or long-term cycles, it might be a polarity; as might be a decision-making tension or dilemma that becomes a chronic, paralyzing condition. Polarities almost always show up in a major organizational change effort (e.g. in a merger or a restructuring or a cultural transformation, you might notice this polarity: investing in the core business and supporting continuous innovation). In Navigating Polarities there is a list on page 124 of the “places to look for polarities,” which include: From-To Situations; Too Much of a Good Thing; Opposite Arguments; Fear of Taking It Too Far; Threat of Losing Identity; The ‘Other’ As Villian; The Energy is Stuck. In these cases, this handbook will be useful.
What other resources might “pair” well with it?
Given my appreciation for several of the thought leaders whose ideas Emerson and Lewis mention weaving into their process – beyond Barry Johnson’s ground-breaking work – I’ll recommend my favorite books by them: Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey Bass, 2011); Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy (reviewed here in the Leadership Library) and Brene Brown’s latest, Dare to Lead (also recently reviewed in the Leadership Library).
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