The Yin and Yang of Leadership

When most people think about leadership they think about a role- a CEO, Executive Director, a politician, someone in charge. But the truth is, having a supervisory role and being in charge does not make you a leader. Leadership is about having certain qualities, not a role. If you look at today’s world, especially in politics, it is full of people who know how to push paper and be in meetings, but when it comes to actual leadership we are seriously lacking. 

Leadership is about knowing how to both work with change and stability. I call this the yin and yang of leadership. Yin and Yang are often misunderstood terms from ancient Chinese philosophy and most people think of the yin/yang symbol popularized in the West during the 1960s. But the way I use yin and yang here is more in line with a post-daoist approach in which these qualities are imbued in every aspect of phenomena and can be worked with in such a way as to inform our lives and psychology, including leadership. 

The yin field in Daoist philosophy is about stability-think about earth and mud. The yang field is about risk and dynamics-being open to what the world is offering. Good leaders know when to keep things stable and how to implement policies and procedures that support equanimity and consistency, qualities which are important for business. At the same time they know how to respond and adapt to what’s happening within their own psychology and in the world, which is always changing. 

Let’s look at an example of how this can manifest in a real situation: 

David is the program manager for a small but impactful program which works with community partners to respond to the opioid crisis. He supervises about 8 people. His program just received two huge grants and as a result is expanding and changing at a rapid pace. The dynamic needs of both his staff and the program are all over the place and he finds himself spinning in circles to respond to the constant “small fires” that need his attention. It all came to a head recently when he exploded at one of his staff for not doing what they were supposed to do. He feels terrible and realizes he is overly stressed and exhausted which does not help. 

So how does David use these principles of the yin and yang in leadership to be more effective as a leader and a person? 

The yin of his leadership is about stability and making sure there is consistency and predictability for both himself and his staff. So that might mean regular staff meetings, predictable schedules, policy handbooks that are the same for everyone and procedures for addressing grievances. Even if those policies and procedures already exist it might mean re-writing them to reflect the growing needs of the program. For himself it might mean regular sleep and exercise, practices that keep him grounded and alert. 

In terms of the yang of his leadership, it means responding to the dynamics of change. This might mean changning schedules to meet the needs of staff, allocating money to different resources according to what’s needed, upgrading and getting rid of stuff that’s no longer needed. For himself it might mean personal growth in the form of coaching, letting go of old patterns and taking on practices that help him upshift his way of responding to what’s needed. 

We can’t have the yin without the yang and vice versa. In leadership, we need both stability and agility and we need the intelligence to know which is needed when. Stagnant yin becomes control and stagnant yang becomes hyper-vigilance and stress. Practices which build self-awareness and resilience help develop “true yin and yang” which can make us more effective leaders. 

For more information about workshops and coaching in these principals and more contact 

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