The Yin and Yang of Leadership

By Thomas J. Lee

It is one of the most enduring symbols in human history: a timeless, evocative pair of black and white swirls, cuddling together inside a circle, and each with an “eye” of the other color.

Its meaning is open to wide interpretation.

For some, and perhaps for you, it is a symbol of equality, mutuality, and interdependence.

For others, it is a symbol of diversity and inclusion. Each swirl’s eye seems to capture the point: We may appear different, but we are all of and in one another.

For still others, it is a symbol of radical understanding and empathy. Indeed, I have seen the swirls graphically reimagined as alternating black and white footprints.

Whatever its intuitive sense for you, it has within it the capacity to unlock meaning from ambiguity, confusion, and paradox.

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As you likely know, the iconic diagram signifies the dueling forces of yin and yang, which can represent any number of opposites or paradoxes. Yin—the black swirl with the white eye—signifies darkness, pessimism, lunar, passivity, and, oddly enough, the feminine. Yang—the white swirl with the dark eye—symbolizes lightness, optimism, solar, activism, and the masculine.*

The central idea of it all is the need to appreciate both sides or vectors of complexity. Only when each is understood, respected, and honored can you create a fully integrated, harmonious whole. Otherwise one side will inevitably dominate, and you will be left with a lopsided apple cart. The cart will wobble and eventually tip over, and your apples will be everywhere.

You can use the idea of yin and yang to grapple with all kinds of dualities, from something as simple as a baby’s bathwater—not too hot, not too cold—to something as complex as living a balanced and meaningful life. It’s especially helpful for understanding paradoxes—pairs of opposites that seem to be mutually exclusive but are actually not.

Now, if you are a regular reader of the On Leadership blog, you likely have an interest in leadership. So the question arises: Have you ever thought of applying the yin-yang dyad to the challenge of leadership?

Yin and yang capture so much of the world, it wouldn’t be surprising if they also colored the work of leadership. Think about it: The animal and plant kingdoms have their male and female. Ledgers have assets and liabilities. A planet has north and south poles. Morality has its good and bad. Brides wear something old and something new. It seems that wherever you look, you notice dualities in natural phenomena, human behavior, and social tradition.

So perhaps this little swirling circle can help us grasp the complexity of a leader’s work, or at least shed some light on it. Let’s try, anyway, just to see where it takes us, for until we do, we won’t know.

The essential questions here, it seems to me, are three:

  1. Does organizational life have a basic, structural dichotomy—its tectonic plates, if you will—that gives rise to dualities?

  2. What are some dualities that emerge from it? What paradoxes do they embrace? Do they align with yin and yang?

  3. Finally, and most importantly, does any of this have explanatory power that helps us become better leaders?

Let’s take them one by one.

First, can we find any basic conceptual dichotomies inherent in organizations?

This is the easiest of the three questions. The answer is a resounding yes. One need look no further than choosing a management philosophy. That’s pretty basic, and it’s quite far-reaching.

As far back as 1960, in his classic book The Human Side of Enterprise, the MIT social psychologist Douglas McGregor articulated two rival management philosophies. He called them Theory X and Theory Y. These are your tectonic plates.

Theory X is authoritarian, the old-fashioned, kick ‘em in the pants approach to motivating people. It’s all stick, no carrot. It assumes that employees are lazy, undisciplined, and perhaps even dishonest, and it insists that the only way to manage such people is with a heavy hand. Think of threats, intimidation, and demands. Theory Y is participative—an enlightened, supportive, inclusive, collaborative alternative. It’s all carrot, no stick. It assumes that employees can and want to make a contribution to the organization but need direction and support. Imagine everyone gathering round the campfire and singing Kumbaya, and you pretty much have Theory Y.

McGregor died in 1964. After he was gone, the legendary Abraham Maslow—yes, he of the famous Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which you probably learned in high school—took a crack at McGregor’s thinking, and came up with a middle ground, which he called Theory Z. Some stick, some carrot. In 1969 he published an influential paper setting forth the third way. It became a dominant management philosophy, if not quite so famous as X and Y.

Now you may think: “Aha! X, Y and Z! That’s three! Yin and yang are but two. How can you fit three riders on a bicycle built for two?”

But that begs the question. It isn’t a simple matter of two’s company, three’s a crowd. Rather, Theory Z is the emergent insight, the gestalt that is greater than the sum of its two parts, Theory X and Theory Y. It’s the whole reason we apply yin and yang—to find a better, broader melding of contrasting forces.

Let’s look at the next question. What dualities emerge from all this? What paradoxes do they embrace? Do they align with yin and yang?

Here again, the answer is right before our eyes.

Leaders are constantly trying to juggle seemingly incompatible priorities. They commonly must champion both efficiency and effectiveness, both survival and growth, both the near term and the long term, both planning and executing.

Here are three core dualities, each with a lot of implications:

  • Means and ends. Ask yourself: Is the essential purpose of your enterprise to make money or to meet the needs of the customer? Is one the means and the other the end? Many entrepreneurs and executives believe it’s all about making money. That’s actually a lopsided apple cart. You’re far shrewder to embrace and pursue both as compatible and mutually reinforcing equals. Then you have the making of a gestalt, which can, for example, lead you to place a higher value on product quality, or workplace safety, or technological innovation, or environmental stewardship—all of which serve both masters.

  • Intent and appearance. People judge themselves on the basis of their intent, which they alone know, and which is always more honorable than it may appear to someone else. We judge others, and others judge us, strictly on evident consequences—without regard for intent. That often gives rise to cynicism, which, if left unchecked, can corrode the foundation of a relationship, a community, or even a society. So you’re better off reaching for both intent and appearance. Besides, the Golden Rule calls on us to treat others as we would wish to be treated.

  • Mental and physical. Successful athletes and other performers know the importance of focus and acuity. In The Inner Game of Tennis, a bestselling 1972 book still widely used in business and public policy schools, Timothy Gallwey throws a bright beam on thinking your way to success. Competitors and performers who ignore the mental side of peak performance, who focus only on the physical, are always at a significant competitive disadvantage. But again, as a duality, both the mental and the physical require attention. One or the other isn’t enough.

Finally, let’s address the question of whether—and if so, how—all this can make us better leaders.

Steve Jobs, by all accounts a marketing genius and technological wizard, was also a lousy leader, in part because, by his own reckoning, he was such a binary thinker. Everything was either this or that, with no possibility for shades of gray. Designs for new products were always “shit” until their final, slight modification. Then they were suddenly perfect.

Though it’s indisputably true that Jobs built a great company, he also drove countless talented colleagues out the door. They landed at other companies, like Google and Facebook.

So there’s at least a prima facie case to be made that, yes, broader and more inclusive thinking can indeed make us better leaders.

I think back to the best leaders I have known, and they have all been large thinkers. That isn’t to suggest they were unfocused or that they let petty concerns interfere. Rather, it is to suggest that they have had greater empathy and more humility, and therefore they are more relatable than other executives.

There’s a great deal to unpack in a subject like this. We’ll return to it in the future.

* Don’t blame me for the gender implications. I didn’t invent it, and the interpretation isn’t mine.