Five Tensions of Leadership


The fibers of all things have their tension and are strained like the strings of an instrument. – Henry David Thoreau

Avid movie enthusiasts will recall the Steven Spielberg movie “Hook” from the early 1990’s starring Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, and Julia Roberts. In this adaptation Peter Pan grows up and plays the role of Peter Banning- a self-absorbed, ladder climbing, workaholic baby boomer.

In some of the early scenes Peter promises his son numerous times that he would come to see him play in his baseball game. Time and again Peter tries to make it to the game but allows business to interrupt the plan and he misses the games. One time Peter even sends one of his office assistants to the ball game in his place. The movie goes on to depict the tension this creates between Peter and his son.

Like the character of Peter Banning; leaders know a thing of two about tensions and how at times relations can be strained. It’s an inevitable part of your leadership. Strings of tension can make beautiful music and can also be the source of great stress.  How you handle tensions will set you apart. Here are five common leadership tensions and ways to handle it.

The tension of accountability

Accountability is essential to good leadership and smart leaders will not shy away from it. An old adage says, “Inspect what you expect,” and effective leaders take this to heart. Properly implemented accountability procedures are not meant to be a drag on creativity or productivity, but rather serve to complement it. The tension occurs when team members resist accountability or when leaders take accountability procedures beyond their stated purpose.  Accountability works best when the objectives are clear and everyone takes ownership.

The tension of communication

Communication is the life-blood of your organization both internally and to those you serve. Getting communication right is essential. Yet when you look at any survey regarding employee engagement one of the top negative issues you will consistently see is poor communication. Tension occurs when leaders make assumptions about communication rather than taking responsibility for knowing it is taking place on all levels. Poor communication creates unnecessary tension that is easily avoidable. You can’t hold people accountable for what you failed to communicate.

The tension of values and vision

If your values and vision are not clear to your people (poor communication) then tensions will inevitably arise. The values and vision of your organization are the blueprints not just of where you are going but it also makes the case for why. If your people do not possess this essential information then tensions will regularly occur between those who “get it” and those who don’t. Within your organization will be people butting heads while never truly understanding why. The tension over values and vision will make you or break you. You must get this right.

The tension of relationships

The aptitude of a leader, while important, is secondary to the manner in which the leader relates to his or her team. Your attitude and disposition will carry you further than aptitude alone. Tensions arise when leaders are brash and abusive rather than competent and friendly. Developing strong people skills will endear you to your people, foster good morale, and will promote camaraderie built on trust. The smartest jerk in the room at the end of the day is still a jerk. Cut out the unnecessary tension and change your attitude.

The tension of time

The greatest commodity of any leader is time. Using it wisely is essential to your success. The demands on your time will create tension. Jim Rohn observed, “Either you run the day or the day runs you.” If you don’t take control of your time and schedule someone else will. The tension lies somewhere between your intent to manage your time and giving time to the people around you who need it. Striking a balance is not always easy. Develop a system that works for you then stick to it. Tension over time is less likely to occur when managed properly.

Let me be clear – you will have tensions in your leadership. The key is to be flexible and a willingness to bend when necessary.


© 2015 Doug Dickerson


About dougdickerson

I am Certified Leadership Trainer, author, columnist, and speaker. Husband to Alicia, father to Katelyn and Kara, and "Pop" to terrific grandson Tyson. I am an avid photographer, love the outdoors, and like to travel. I'm passionate about sharing my leadership insights and helping people reach their full potential.
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