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Leveraging the Power of Polarities for Leaders with Vinay Kumar

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Have you ever thought, what is polarity? Have you wondered how it plays an important part in our lives, be it personal or professional? The concept of polarity is not that simple. It has many junctions and many meanings. Physics defines polarity as the condition of having poles or being aligned with or directed toward poles, especially magnetic or electric poles but in life, it is an extreme way of thinking. So the question is, what is polarity? To decode this, Vinay Kumar joined us on coaching matters this time to explain how to leverage the power of polarity.

Here is a transcripted version of the conversation that followed.

Understanding Polarity and Problem

At times in life, we want one thing and at the same moment, we want another thing. For example, when you are home, you find yourself enjoying home life, while you’re thinking, “My God, I should be spending more time at work.” When you’re at work, you’re thinking, “I need to spend more time with my home and my family.” On one hand, you want more certainty, more security, more sense of safety in your life while on the other hand, you also desire freedom and adventure. These things happen because we put in a lot of effort. We use the wrong tool and therefore we don’t get the results we desire. To get the results we want, we have to use the right tool for the right job and this is really important in in our professional and our work lives as well. 

So what we often do is that we use life and work interchangeably, there are two types of issues and challenges we all face. And the difficulty lies because we don’t realize there are two types. We try to mix up the approach and it doesn’t work. Either we’re dealing with problems or we’re dealing with polarities. What we’re not exposed to is this whole topic of polarities because we’re not exposed to it. We’ll try to address polarity as if it’s a problem to be solved there, our lives are challenged. So it is really important to understand what is a problem and what is a polarity. 

What is a Problem?

A problem is oftentimes a situation where there is a right answer. There are multiple right answers. It doesn’t matter which one you take, they will all work. They’re not interdependent on each other. It’s the classic choice. It requires either thinking, if I get to, Mumbai from Delhi while we can drive, you can walk, you can take a plane, you can take a train. Whichever you take, it doesn’t matter. Any of those answers, any of the solutions will work. They’re all independent of each other. So some examples of problems to solve, organizations, which person should we hire for a given position, right? Which item should be clear in our customer survey? Where should we launch a certain product?

If we have choices about multiple options, let’s say in positions, which all do we accept? It doesn’t matter. Pick one and you move forward. So in a problem to be solved, what it requires is either-or thinking. And in our education system, in our upbringing, this is predominantly the thing that we get very competent at and it works in many, many situations. But in leadership, many of the challenges that we face are not problems to be solved, but they are rather polarities.

What is Polarity?

Polarities are something that we call… there’s multiple answers and they’re all interdependent. In other words, if you look at it as two parts of a whole system and they’re ongoing and there’s no way you can ever solve them. At best, you can manage them. An example, there’ll be constantly using polarities is simply inhaling and exhaling. Let’s do an activity here. You know, there’s a research study that came out that says inhaling is really good for you. And exhaling is not so good for you. Let’s all take a deep breath and just inhale.

See how long we can hold it. So take a deep breath, inhale and just keep inhaling and do not exhale. What happens over time? Can you keep inhaling or do you then have a natural desire and natural need to exhale? So do the opposite now. 

Begin to exhale and see how long you can keep doing that. If you do that naturally over time, your system is going to say, “Enough of this exhale. Now I need to inhale.” So this inhale and exhale is what we call an interdependent pair. It’s a polarity because it is ongoing. There’s no way there’s a right answer to whatever you choose to come up with, you need to inhale and exhale. So to optimize, you need to get pieces of both over time. Like, sometimes in coaching we support the client, the leader, we can be very gentle. We can be caring. We can be compassionate. We can hold space for them. But if that’s all we do as coaches, we’re often not very effective. So in a coaching engagement, we also have to bring in the notion of challenge, what I call sometimes we have to pull out the sword. We have to cut to the chase. We have to get some tough love, some tough feedback.

In an effective coaching relationship, we have to provide support and we have to challenge the client to make the progress they need to produce and create so they can create what is important to them. In organizations, we have to have individual effort and team effort. It’s not either-or. It’s not just about simply cost or quality. It’s not cost versus quality; it’s cost and quality. We can collaborate and we can compete. We can have a home life and we can have work life; both are important. So these are the notion of polarities; it’s that they’re interdependent pairs. You need both over time. Polarities are seemingly opposite states that have to coexist over time if we’re going to be successful. They require a both end mindset because leaning too heavily in one direction or the other will likely land us in trouble.

Working with Polarity Map

How do you work with polarities? There’s a wonderful tool that we call a polarity map. The first step is we have to see the polarity. We ask ourselves a question, is this a problem to be solved, where there is a right answer or there are multiple right answers, independent of each other.

In a polarity map you put two polarities in the two poles. In this particular fashion here, like for example, you can have a continuity as a pole or transformation as the other pole. And then you capture what’s the upside of each pole, if you focus on that. And if you over-focus on that particular pole and then neglect the pole on the right-hand side, what might be some downsides that you might experience? Same on the other side, if you look at the right-hand pole, what are the benefits of first focusing on that particular side? But if you over-focus on the pole and neglect pole one, what might be some downsides? What may be some negative things that you might experience over time? So let’s look at an example here.

For example, we have what we call polarity of work and home. If you focus on work, what’s the upside? Let’s take a look at them. 

  • You make a difference. 
  • It’s challenging. 
  • It’s stimulating. 
  • We have good relationships. 
  • We’re engaged with various individuals and organizations or customers or partners and so on.

We get our money that we could pay our bills with that. Right. But if you over-focus on work at the neglect, this is a key word here, at the neglect of home life, which is the right-hand pole, what might be some downsides?

  • We may not take enough time to take care of our homes. 
  • We may feel exhausted at the end of the day or end of the week or end of the month.
  • We may not spend enough time in relationships. 
  • There’s no time for things that are important to us, that nourish us, that energize us. There’s no time for basically what I call rejuvenation. 

Similarly, on the right-hand side, what are the benefits of focusing at home? 

  • We can relax. 
  • We can rejuvenate.
  • We have strong relationships. 
  • We enjoy life, you play hobbies and things like that. 

But if you want to focus on home and then neglect of work, what might be some downside, which is the bottom right hand corner? It’s the opposite, What happens in our own life, people who like to focus on work, they see their upside being the upper left quadrant and they see the downside, which is the bottom right of the other side. Say where people that value home life, they also see the upside of their pole. And obviously the downside of the opposite pole. 

Therefore, we lock heads, but we get into a gridlock. So what this tool is, polarity mapping is a wonderful tool that we can use to capture the wisdom that’s in the system. The way this works is you bring in different stakeholders into the conversation.

You capture the poles, you name them, then you label them on this polarity map. Then you engage in the conversation saying, okay, if you focus on one pole, one side of the polarity, what’s the upside? And what’s the downside of focusing on that pole? And then you do the same with the other pole. What happens when people do this? They finally begin to see, “Wow, there’s the upside of my side, my thinking, but there’s also an upside of the other person thinking what’s important to them.” 

Polarity: A Skill for Senior Leader

Are not polarities required in terms of skills for senior leadership? How do you help a team member dissolve a polarity and come up with a solution that was beneficial for wellbeing of the team and the wellbeing of the systems and the process as well. 

Many of the senior leaders have risen to those ranks because they were experts in their chosen field. They’re really good at what they did and therefore promotions happened. At some point, they find themselves in senior ranks where the biggest challenge that they face is delegation. How to rely on others to do the work and not themselves. So they’re thinking because they’re very tactical, very execution focused, but at some point, they have to turn around and be much more strategic, moving the organization forward.

What they’re wrestling oftentimes with is do I be strategic? Do I be tactical? Do I focus on the present business? The way it is, it’s going great. And do I focus on the future creation where I want to take my organization? They’re faced with a challenge. They have a very successful organization and they have a great product they’re very profitable. So there’s a tendency to say, you know, this thing is working. Don’t mess with it. At the same time, in an environment, they’re trying to innovate, trying to create a future. And they want to take the organization to dig about $7 billion a year. They take it to 10. They’re making a lot. It’s very profitable.

What they’re running into is innovation during the resistance, because this machine that we have, this money-making machine is working. So what we’re doing, we’re creating clarity maps. What’s the upside of keeping the way things are? But if you over do it, what might be some downsides over time? And therefore why must we innovate today?

So we have a polarity of continuity and transformation. And polarity map really helps bring all different voices in the room and capture in a very central place. And they can see for the first time, oftentimes there are benefits to both and there are downsides to both. So it changes the conversation from a versus, me versus you to a me and you.

About Vinay Kumar

With Leading for Breakthroughs, Vinay Kumar is a Leadership & Executive Coach, Author, and Speaker. Vinay spent more than 20 years co-leading a family business before transitioning to professional coaching. His clients now include both commercial and public sector companies, as well as family businesses. Vinay provides leadership coaching, leadership education programmes, and leadership retreat design and facilitation. He is also a member of the Leadership Coaching Program at George Washington University. Language and the Pursuit of Leadership Excellence: How Extraordinary Leaders Build Relationships, Shape Culture, and Drive Breakthrough Results is his most recent publication. He has a technical background, having worked as a Chemical Engineer and as a business executive in charge of the P&L. He has worked in both the private and public sectors. He has also spent over 18 years creating and co-leading a family firm, during which time he increased revenue by 28 times, doubled profitability, and improved client loyalty and staff retention. As a result, he is intimately familiar with the corporate environment and the pressures that leaders face.

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