How to be a great leader by balancing tension

Why it is hard, and why you should try

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Leon Purton Aug 17 · 10 min read

To lead is to see the shape of people — and the empty space in problems, then fit the people to that space and let them grow. If the problem space is to large, the stretch to far, you have failed them. If the problem space is to small, the fit too tight, you have failed them

I was asked recently to describe my leadership philosophy. It took me some time to think about this, and even longer to crystallise it in my mind. When I reflected on the way I prepare my mentee’s for our relationship, I came to realise that I create a dynamic. One that I did not initially realise.

I need to admit that I didn’t always do this, I have learnt it over time, learnt what works — and you know how I learnt it. I sucked for a while and now I’m getting better. I certainly haven’t finished — this is a continuous challenge and one that I welcome.

So, what have I learnt — what do I know now? I worked out that it is at the ends of good that things get bad. Does that make sense? I’ll expand. As a leader, you need to find the balance in the tension between genuine care for the person as a human, and challenging them to achieve things they do not believe they can.

This is a difficult tension to find and thrive in, I’ll explain more, and I’ll start with the ends that just don’t work.


I had a friend who cared so much. She wanted her staff to know that they could talk to her about anything. She would support them through everything. She regularly took in food, she answered calls on the weekends, she worked late to sort out paperwork for her staff.

She was a genuinely amazing person, and most people I have spoken to about her agree she has a huge heart. She really, genuinely cared and people adored that about her. She always made time for people, her door was always open as they say.

She also cared for her boss, and wanted the team to succeed so much. The problem is, she was working with an under-performing team. They were bickering and in-fighting, they were blaming each other for not getting the things done they need. The junior workforce and her were holding the team and the output required at a level, but it was hurting everyone.

I can’t blame her at all, she just wants everyone to be happy, but she was falling apart. The team knew they didn’t have to anything they didn’t want to.


In a similar fashion, I have seen someone who was so focused on the outcomes of the team, they forgot that there were humans in the workforce. Everything was about the numbers, and achievement was measured in revenue. Improvement was a must.

She drove her team to achieve, she worked very hard herself, putting in the hours in an attempt to hit the targets. There was a high turnover rate of staff, with many people identifying on their exit interview that they couldn’t handle working for someone that just pushed them, relentlessly, for results.

The biggest complaint from those she worked with, was she was low on personal interaction skills. She didn’t really care about the people, she was focused on the results. She did get people to do things they didn’t think they could, but they disliked her for it.

Balancing the Tension

To lead is to see the shape of people — and the empty space in problems.

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Do you remember when you where a child, and you’d grip hands with a friend or family member then spin in circles leaning out?

While you were laughing and smiling, the ground flattening under your feet as the circles wandered around and you grew dizzier and dizzier, you looked at smiling face of the person across from you as the rest of the world blurred to insignificance.

During that time the spinning was trying to pull you apart, and your grip strength holding you together. This is the tension of opposing forces. You spin too fast — for too long, and you both propel in opposite directions and collapse in giggling fits on the ground. The tension was too much for your grip strength. I encourage you to find someone and do this, we do not play and smile enough as adults.

Collapsing, out of breath with laughter and the sky spinning above you, will take you to a place that your heart knows but your body has forgotten.

As a leader, you need to create and balance the same tension with your team members. You can put more pressure on, spin faster, but you risk pulling apart and hurting them and yourself. In contrast, if you are not spinning, there is no tension and it grows boring and complacent. You need to find the right tension point, that is where the fun lies — fun for both of you. That is where growth happens. That is where you find your limits and push through them.

So how do you do it? How do create the tension required. How fast can you spin without hurting your team and yourself, but how do ensure that you are spinning? Here is an explanation of my process, hopefully parts of it find a home for you too.


Truth is, people will never recognise what has changed within you, what makes you tick, what sets your heart and soul on fire, or what causes a rage within your bloodstream, unless they yearn to understand your soul — Kristin Michelle Elizabeth

You need to work to understand your team. I am not talking about just listening, I mean asking real questions about them. Find out more about them than they perhaps have ever understood about themselves and how they work. I will use this same process for each of my staff, the one I outlined in ‘How to become a better Mentor in three simple steps — and why you should’:

Find their personal values; having a personal values conversation is the singular most important part of beginning to understand someone. I use Brené Brown’s values worksheet from ‘Dare to Lead’ as the template and ask them to circle all the words that jump out to them as personal values, then to down select it to the two most important. They then need to write a definition for what that word means to them and think of where they have seen or acted in a way that energises them through that value. Share yours, what your definition is and when you have felt energised or filled (I use a bucket analogy in the article) by them.

Establish boundaries; I use the ‘I request — I offer’ template to establish the boundaries of the relationship. This is exceptionally important in establishing alignment. What do they request of you as a leader, and what do you request of them? What do you offer to them, and what do they offer to you? Here is an example you can use as a starter.

From the article

Define success; What does success look like for them? Ask them to write out what their end of term report looks like, what have they accomplished that got them there? It is important to give them space to define their own success criteria, this will help you understand their motivations. If you request they describe the things they had to overcome to achieve it, you will learn more about their beliefs about their strength and weaknesses. Have them write it down and have a conversation about it. Refine it, stretch them.

Get to know them; There are a few ways to go about this. It can take several conversations or it can be a little more formalised. For instance; Ryan Hawk utilises a ‘get to know you sheet’ that has a series of questions to learn more about his new starters. In each situation, you need to learn to give trust. That means sharing about yourself as well. Trust begets trust. Give to get. Without trust you cannot challenge them. Without trust you can barely communicate with them.

Be Clear

Clear is kind — Brené Brown

Expectations; They need to know you will challenge them, but also understand that you will care for them as person. If you are clear in these expectations, you will be able to convince them of their ability to achieve the next challenge. Your expectations should be defined as requests in your boundaries discussion.

Feedback; The All Blacks (the New Zealand Rugby Union team) have a saying “In the belly, not the back” which pertains to feedback. They want honest feedback delivered straight, not snide remarks and comments behind their back. The same applies to the effective leader. All feedback should be delivered in person and from the front. To do this you need to have established trust and understanding. These conversations are difficult, but essential. Without them, there is no tension. Do not wait till the end of the reporting period, give feedback consistently. The Special Forces teams do a Post Activity Review or After Action Review following every mission. You can take this mentality and so the same. It is open, honest, immediate and focused on improving performance and learning from mistakes.

Authentic; Do not pretend to be something you are not. Be you, all the time. Expect the same from your team. Authenticity is a true strength of a leader. Know what you are good at, understand what you are not. Work to get better, but communicate it with your team. Authenticity is closely coupled to vulnerability, being comfortable as a leader to say “I don’t know” or “I am not good at this yet” will benefit you, not hinder you. Be brave, be authentic, be honest with yourself and your team.

Intent; Your team needs to know, without having to come and see you, what to do in as many situations as possible. The thing is, they already know more than you think, you need to give them permission to do it. David Marquet in his book “Turn the Ship Around” describes that you create leaders by giving intent, not direction. You need to ensure they have clarity on your intent, then let them go. Trust them to come and see you when they need additional clarity or to report on progress.

Courtesy of Pexels

See their Shape

Getting to know them, and caring for them as a person is all focused on seeing the shape of your team — the edge they define, where they believe their potential lies, and the edge you see where you know they can grow. The art of leadership comes in seeing the shape of the problems and the potential of your staff and consciously creating the right mismatches. Too much one way and you don’t challenge enough, to much the other and you challenge too much. Here’s the trick though. If you really understand them, I mean know them and their abilities, you can support them through the gap. The requirement is care and communication. Understand when they are having issues outside of work, and dialling it back. Being clear about the need for them to step up when the big challenge is coming. But most importantly, congratulate their growth and celebrate the teams wins.

I wrote about how my Mother (4 things my Mother taught me about Leadership) taught me about cake as an important tool for celebrating. I’m not as much of a cook as her, but I do make sure we take time for food. I will organise time for us to sit and chat over cheese and dips, chocolate and chips. This is part ‘know them’ and part ‘we’re doing a good job’. Both are important.

I’m reminded of a study I recently read about; A psychologist went to a primary school and told the teachers he had a method for determining potential geniuses through a short test- called the ‘Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition’ . He took the kids away and then came back with a list of children he had identified with the potential to be geniuses for each class, he gave that list to each teacher and said “even if it doesn’t seem like it, they have potential to be great”, he said “they are on the edge of an intellectual bloom”. Over the next year, those on the list had grown on average six IQ points higher than those that were not on the list (average of 13-point growth, vice 7 for those not on the list). I bet you’re asking how he did the testing, and why it isn’t more common place? Here’s the thing, there was no special test, he selected the children at random.

The teachers were given completely arbitrary names. So why did they outperform their peers? Because the teachers believed they could. Good work was praised, but expectations were raised. An error, was a learning opportunity. Leaving the teacher thinking they did not explain it clearly enough, perhaps they need to understand how the student better receives information. All of these things created a tension. A tension between expectation and care.

You as a leader need to believe they are capable of more than they believe they are. You also need to show them that you genuinely care for them as a person. You understand what is happening in their life and know when to push and when to ease.

It isn’t easy, it isn’t clear when you are succeeding and when you are failing. But it is worth it.

See their shape, clarify the problem and your intent, feel the tension and help them grow.

Stay safe and keep smiling,


Photo from SUNG-IL KIM/CORBIS found here

Writer of things, learning about leadership, personal development and growth. Originally published at

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