Coaching Article – The Loose-Tight Leadership Mindset

How many times have you heard from others in 2020, “You need to adapt”? If there ever was a time during which we’ve had to adapt, it’s been this year! Let’s continue talking about it but from a different angle that I think you’ll appreciate. The “loose-tight” leadership principle isn’t necessarily a new concept, as it’s always been crucial to great leadership. This paradoxical approach seems contradictory, but it’s something that all honorable leaders must conquer.

Tighten Up to Perform

You may have realized that you’re more talented in some areas than in others. We do our best work when we employ our best natural talents and strengths. The appropriate analogy when this scenario happens is “swimming downstream.”  Because our best natural talents are strong and easier to develop, we can more easily move from a six to a ten on the success scale. We see this example in athletes, singers, executive assistants, sales reps, speakers, analysts, engineers, customer service reps and literally every other field. When we and our teams are swimming downstream and loving our work, it can be fun and it’s the best road to success.

But here’s the rub—leadership success is not based solely on what you do well with your best talents. In fact, history is replete with leaders who got in their own way by overusing their natural strengths. In his biography of Churchill, Piers Brendon pointed this out about the young leader –

“’…Churchill’s vices were simply his virtues in exaggerated form. Dash became rashness.’ ‘…His overwhelming faith in himself closed his mind to the opinions of others.’

“Leadership is about getting the best performance out of others, and that requires a different focus—it’s not what you can do, but what they can do.” [Tweet This]

It’s about energizing others and managing a variety of different people with different talents.

Loosen Up to Adapt

The best leaders learn that using their own personal talents and strengths isn’t enough, so they must loosen up their mindset and empower others. By making that adaptation, they can recognize, inspire, and exploit the myriad of talents embedded in their people.

Watch this month’s Leading with Honor Coaching clip as I share the loose-tight mindset. Be sure and interact by clicking the emoticons and posting your comments –

(Video not playing? Watch it Here.)

This concept is also beautifully illustrated in the new book, The Grit Factor, by Shannon Huffman Polson. Shannon was one of the first women to pilot an Army Apache helicopter gunship. Using interviews with other pioneering women aviators and warriors, Shannon describes what she and many of them had to learn—sometimes the hard way—that good leaders learn to ask questions, listen, and pause to reflect with an open mind.

As a young lieutenant commanding an Apache platoon, the idea of asking her experienced Warrant Officers and Sergeants questions would indicate that she was uninformed and inexperienced in key work areas.  That perspective brought fear that it would make her look weak. But not asking was going to increase the likelihood of mistakes and that would make her look even worse. She described how she and other women who were crashing the “good old boys” clubs of aviation learned that leaders who ask questions and truly listen make much better decisions and gain the respect of their followers.

The Greatest Leader Attribute

In the last twenty years, we have surveyed thousands of leaders on the qualities of their greatest leader. We assume that all good leaders must have strong character/integrity and they are hard workers, so those qualities are taken off the table. With that as the only ground rule, the most frequent response to the question, “What attribute made your leader a ‘great leader’?” is consistently, “They listened to me.”

“For leaders, listening and asking questions with an open mind isn’t easy and often feels a bit ‘loosey-goosey,’ but it’s a powerful tool that we all need to learn and practice.” [Tweet This]

So here is the challenge for every leader: How do I personally need to adapt to more comfortably operate with a loose-tight mindset? Generally, it’s not by tightening our focus to personally solve the problem from our perspective with our own best talents. More often it’s going to come from identifying and empowering the enormous talents that are ready and waiting in our people.

For the next month, what if we all worked harder to loosen up and courageously ask genuine questions, actively listen and then pause to reflect with an open mind? Based on our research, Shannon Huffman Polson and I would likely predict—the payoff will be big.


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