Be Balanced! Be Bold! But Which is Best for Leadership?

Making Sense of Temperament, Talent, and This Moment in Time

We were approaching Boxcar, a Class III rapid on a challenging stretch of the Deschutes River in central Oregon.

The Deschutes surges at this bend in the river, formed by a boulder as big as—you guessed it—a boxcar. The thing about Boxcar is you hear it before you see it. And what you hear takes your breath away.

The intensity of whitewater rapids is classified from Class I to Class VI, Class III being the highest any responsible guide would travel without endangering life and limb. Not that a Class III rapid is risk-free, it just isn’t a death wish.

My rafters this weekend were a group of international students who had just arrived from Japan. Someone thought it would be a good idea to give them a truly American experience, so whitewater rafting it was. Sadly, not the best idea in the world.

As a seasoned guide, I had successfully navigated Boxcar scores of times. It was difficult but doable if. . . If you follow a few basic guidelines.

First, Boxcar isn’t a straight on rapid. It takes a sharp right turn at the top. To negotiate this turn, you’ve got to float to its crest and spin the back of your boat to the left. A raft spins like this when the right side of your crew paddles forward as the left side of crew raft paddles backward. That’s second. And third, while making this pivot, your guide, sitting in the far back of the boat, steers it into the center of the rapid’s vortex, ensuring a safe, but fun, ride.

As my crew of international students came to the crest of Boxcar, they were paralyzed with fear. I screamed out instructions, “Row forward! Row backward! No, no, no. You row forward, you row backward!”

It was hopeless.

We plunged over the top of Boxcar, all of us flipping out of the boat like disconnected Lego characters. I grabbed for my riders’ lifejackets and dragged them to shore, corralling our raft, oars, and cooler. They were safe but drenched and utterly demoralized. It took an hour to get these poor souls back into the boat and on with their truly American experience.

Row Forward! Row Backward!

It occurs to me that popular leadership guides do something similar. One guru spouts one point of view, and another guru spouts another, each with captivating stories, statistical research, and contradictory conclusions. It’s as if they’re saying, “Row forward! Here’s why. . .” or “Row backward! Here’s why. . .” leaving the rest of us unlucky raft riders terribly confused.

This confusion is most evident around the topics of temperament and talent. On the one hand, we’re told that emotional intelligence is one of the most important qualities for leaders to possess today and advised to moderate our natural impulses, bringing greater empathy to the table. In short, be balanced.

On the other hand, we’re told that the most successful leaders have a small set of core competencies, which they radically leverage to build their businesses. We, too, should be resolute, single-minded, and sharply-focused. In short, be bold (not balanced).

But what if both are true? What if the pivot we need in this Boxcar moment is being balanced and bold at the same time. What if becoming a better leader means moderating our temperament and maximizing our talent?

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I believe that’s actually the case. Here’s the truth about temperament and talent.

What is Temperament?

Core personality—that’s what I mean by temperament. In other words, temperament is how we naturally relate to people and circumstances. Some of us may be more naturally direct and others more naturally diplomatic; some may be more decisive and others more deliberate, some more trusting, others more skeptical.

On and on the list could go. It’s a good list, a list we should use to become more aware of who we are and how we act, especially under pressure.

Temperament is about being. All of us are flawed human beings. That’s the deck of cards nature has dealt us. Playing those cards well means understanding our weaknesses and minimizing them as much as possible.

What is Talent?

Talent, unlike temperament, is not about being. It’s about doing. Talent is a set of core competencies we possess as leaders and utilize to get things done. Talent is a toolbox.

I’ve always been good with words, so the leadership tools I use are speaking and writing, coaching and facilitating. My friend, Steve, has always been good at fixing things, so the leadership tools he uses are solving problems and engineering brilliant solutions. It would be ridiculous in the name of balance to demand that Steve become a public speaker and I an engineer. There’s disaster written all over that directive.

Leverage is the right metaphor for talent, not balance or moderation. Leverage is focusing on the few things we do well and doing them even better so that we maximize their full potential and achieve what Marcus Buckingham calls “consistent, near perfect performance.”

Betting on ourself in this way takes a certain kind of boldness.

Balance and Boldness in Concert

The balance we need in leadership develops our character and allows others to trust us explicitly. It takes a hard look at one’s self and asks, “Are the ways I’m acting aligned with the things I believe?” Character then makes changes based on the answers to that question.

We need leaders like this right now, as rampant erosion of trust in most every sector of society has exploded into outright fury.

The boldness we need in leadership develops our competence and allows others to follow us confidently. It asks, “What are the strengths I bring to the table, and how can I use them to solve today’s most pressing problems?”

We need leaders like this as well; for a vast sea of incompetence, from business breakdowns to voting fiascos, threatens to drown us all.

We sit atop Boxcar needing to do two things at once. Not one or the other, but both at the same time, in concert. But that’s the way it’s always been, wild swings of the pendulum are counterproductive and ultimately catastrophic.

Wise leaders walk a path that’s both balanced and bold, with unquestioned character and unparalleled competence. Won’t you join them in their journey?


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