The Task of a Leader: Balancing Respect and Responsibility

By Bob and Lyn Turknett

Leadership can come from anywhere, but wherever you see leadership emerge, we would argue that you will see what we call the “fundamental balance” – the balance of respect and responsibility. Anyone in Atlanta on Aug. 20, 2013 saw that balance demonstrated for the world to see by a school bookkeeper.  We woke up that morning to news of a gunman with an AK-47 in a school.  No one knew what would happen, and no one knew that we would learn so much about leadership.

In 1994, we began thinking hard about the core of leadership – what was the essence? We were trying to distill leadership into its most basic form – which is influence, or getting people to follow you even when you have no formal power.  The goal was to come up with a simple, visual model of leadership.

We saw that no one followed unless they trusted the leader – there needed to be a basic level of honesty and integrity. We also realized that good leaders always balanced two things – they cared tremendously about people, but they could also be laser-focused on results and the bottom line. We realized that we were talking about Character, and developed then a visual model of character in leadership depicted as a scale. The scale has a strong base labeled “Integrity” – great leaders are honest, trustworthy, and authentic. Two sides – sides that are often in competition – are balanced on the scale: Respect – the concern for people side, and Responsibility – the task-focused, drive for results side. The qualities of character on the Respect side of the scale are Humility, Empathy, Emotional Mastery, and Lack of Blame. The Responsibility side consists of Courage, Accountability, Self-confidence, and Focus on the Whole.

Here’s the challenge many leaders do not understand: to actually get results (as opposed to simply driving toward them), you have to balance both sides. Leaders over-weighted on either side simply do not succeed, nor do company cultures.

There has been research indicating that a new CEO should not always match the existing culture. Why not? Well, if the culture is over-weighted on the execution-focused, responsibility side of the scale, a new CEO who brings a focus on relationship-building and respect can move the organization towards the cultural balance needed for financial success. In addition, if the culture is overly focused on relationships, a CEO who is focused on tasks and execution will help balance the scales and move the organization forward.

We believe that the best leaders work hard to grow on both sides of the scale – they are masters of both respect and responsibility.  Microsoft has transformed over the past six years, transitioning from stagnant growth to revenue increases of over 20 percent per year for the past three years, and their stock price has continued to climb.  Many would attribute that growth to the leadership of Satya Nadella, who took the helm as CEO in Feb. 2014. Bloomberg Businessweek described the change as a Nadellaissance, and emphasized how his style helped tame the internally-competitive, harsh culture:

His self-effacing, if not bland, style is what Microsoft, a bureaucracy crippled by egos and infighting, needed. Colleagues swear they’ve never seen him get upset, raise his voice, or fire off an angry email. Shelley Bransten, a Microsoft corporate vice president, suggests that what makes Nadella unique is that he has “no swagger.” One executive even claims, not quite believably, that he’s never heard Nadella say no.

Nadella famously brought in empathy, a focus on a “growth mindset,” and the “non-violent communication” techniques of Marshall Rosenberg, but he is also just as strong on the Responsibility side of the scale. He has been laser focused on mobile and cloud computing and describes the three priorities of leadership as bringing Clarity, Energy, and no-excuses Success.

The fundamental balance of tough and tender, yin and yang, agentic and communal, is not limited to the character needed for leadership. The ability to balance competing polarities, honoring and strengthening both, is necessary for success in many domains. When speaking about parenting we used to describe the key as balancing firmness and warmth.

Last night, we were visiting family and heard the introductory message to parents from our great-niece’s kindergarten teacher – now delivered via YouTube rather than a face-to-face parent meeting. The teacher said that there were only two rules for her kindergartners. The rules were “Be Kind” and “Work Hard.” The fundamental balance again.

The bookkeeper at Ronald E. McNair Academy was a true poster child for balance and for the Leadership Character Model. When Antoinette Tuff saw the gunman, she did not say what I would have said, which is “Oh my Gosh, where are the police? This is NOT MY JOB.” She took it on and if leadership is defined as getting people over whom you have NO authority to move with you toward a goal, we defy you to find a better leader. It took extreme courage to decide to engage with the gunman that day, but she had more than courage.

Tuff balanced courage and toughness with empathy and respect better than anyone we have ever known – she saw the humanity in that troubled young man, and shared her own struggles. She was loving enough, forceful enough, and honest enough that she got him to put down his weapons and lie down on the floor as the police came in.

You will not find a better lesson in leadership than the story in that tape. Tuff said that she used “weapons of the spirit,” – she was “Tuff” as nails – the responsibility side of the scale, saint-like in her compassion – the respect side of the scale, and so honest it will break your heart.  If you are a leader, listen to the 911 call. You will learn a lot about leadership in crisis, and a lot about the fundamental balance it takes to lead.

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