Great Leadership. Threading a needle of contradictions…

How many great bosses have you had in your career?   I’d bet many of us can count them on one hand (and maybe not use all of your fingers on that hand).  Why?  Why are there so few great leaders?  I’d agree with the premise below – – the job has so many contradictory demands that must be kept in balance…

“…Douglas MacArthur…unquestionably the most gifted man-at-arms this nation has produced, was no unidimensional soul.  He was a great thundering paradox of man, noble, and ignoble, inspiring and outrageous, arrogant and shy, the best of men and the worst of men, the most protean, most ridiculous, and most sublime…Flamboyant, impervious, and apocalyptic…For every MacArthur strength there was a corresponding MacArthur weakness.

…We contend that all of us, executives included, are a little like MacArthur.  We are contradictory, paradoxical, and miscellaneous jumbles of vices and virtures.  And this is why balance is so basic.  Every strength can also turn out to be a weakness, and great strenghths or weaknesses can grow unjustifiably overblown.  The issue is the particular combination of strengths and weaknesses a person brings to a particular situation.  For executives, these balances often appear to be basic contradictions, surfaced by contradictory demands on the job:

…So balance is not a scorecard of lessons, with two checked in every column.  Balance is not something attained all at once and then owned forever.  As we mean it, balance reflects fundamental tensions that, over the years, get out of whack.  When something gets unbalanced, we have to learn in order to get it back under control.”

Sources: “The Lessons of Experience: How Successful Executives Develop On the Job.”  By McCall, Lombardo, and Morrison.  Image:


  1. Terrific post, David. Balance is very unbalanced in the most briliant of minds…but mostly only when these minds can’t get over themselves. I agree, maybe less than a handful and these bosses were compassionate while towing the line, and remembered what it was like to not be the boss..they never believed they were better than anyone else and always appreciated a job well done.
    One thing everyone should look for in a boss…..Can he/she do every job that he/she is in charge of if necessary and more importantly, rather than fall behind in productivity…will he/she? The Absentee ‘boss’ is useless.


  2. I enjoy your posts as they always bring up key questions for me in my continual search for understanding leadership. What if it’s not really about balance, playing up one and down playing another, but what if we embraced both as the reality of human life. It’s just that in those that accept the mantle of leadership both our strengths and weaknesses are exposed more to the world. Maybe the key isn’t balancing them, but embracing them and being aware of when one is trying to take over?


  3. Very accurate…Leadership is full of contradictions and sometimes lonely but can be very fulfilling. Great bosses are hard to find but when you have had the opportunity to work with one, you appreciate it and always remember the lessons learned. I can say that I have had two great bosses in my career.


  4. I’m absolutely agree, to many chiefs….so few leaders!


  5. George Washington was another great leader……


  6. Super post, David.


  7. Kim Epstein says:

    This is such a great post! Especially in contemporary business practice, the role of “boss” is so plastic, that balance and flexibility are hugely important. At HRDQ, we’ve just recently released The Matrix Manager, by James Eicher, which discusses the different qualities and behaviors necessary for contemporary businesses that have modified hierarchies. In it, he pairs behaviors that need to be balanced and controlled like Knowledge v Empowerment, Correctness v Risk Taking, Image v Participation, and Regulation v Development. He also did a webinar on the topic, which is definitely worth watching. You can find it here:


  8. I guess I’m strange. Most of my bosses have been great leaders. In fact I can only think of two bad bosses in my life.

    Thanks for the insight, however.


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