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Mindful Leadership: Striking the Right Balance

Leadership is a complex process that involves visioning, directing, motivating, and enabling oneself and others to achieve objectives and make the vision real.

Managing complexity requires stepping back, mindfully accepting things as they are and relying on gut feel and letting go into the flow. While logic and analysis are powerful and useful attributes, they have decreasing returns as the complexity of human relationships increases.

Leadership takes place at different levels and is often shared among people working together. In a group, one person may be the thought leader, coming up with the vision while another takes on the leadership role of motivator and enabler. At different stages of a project, there may be a shift in leadership from one person to another. For example, one person might do well as the leader of a project just starting up, doing well when there is less structure and greater need for creative planning and design, while another does better when the program becomes more stable and requires plan maintenance and managing the longer term relationships during execution.

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Leadership and Authority

Leadership is not the same as hierarchical authority. A leader may be the subordinate of their manager. Because of their leadership qualities an individual may naturally take the leadership role or part of it. The effective manager, exhibiting their own leadership skills, will enable the natural leaders to arise and be supported. Each person can become a leader in their domain. As individuals, we are responsible for leading ourselves – setting a vision, directing, etc. A small team requires internal leadership as much as the large organization or program.

The less effective manager may create conflict by holding onto an authority position that they confuse with leadership. This conflict suppresses the natural process in which merit, as opposed to authority, drives performance. For example, a manager degrades team performance when they mandate their own design concept over a subordinate’s far better design. However, this is a tricky area. Subordinates may hold back from commenting on or offering alternatives to their manager’s ideas. To counter this, the leader may want to offer their ideas later, giving subordinates the ability to put forth their ideas first. This tactic, though, has its drawbacks. When the leader with authority is faced with ideas that are objectively substandard, a good deal of extra time and effort may be spent in coming up with the best way forward by refining or replacing the initial ideas.

Note the difference between hierarchical authority and the type of authority that comes with proven accomplishment in a field. When one is an authority on a subject, their content carries weight, as opposed to their position in an organization, their rhetoric or their relationship to people in power. In the end, content makes the difference. The leader enables the team to assess the content objectively, regardless of its source.

Working with What You Have

A leader must assess and work with the real capabilities of his team, recognizing they are just another member with a role to play. In many projects, team members are assigned rather than selected. The leader will adjust roles to accommodate the team members’ strengths and weaknesses. They will have the hard conversations to address weaknesses. For example telling a key person that they will no longer have a role that they value but do not have the capacity to handle. The effective leader will practice patience and do their best to bring people along.

It is necessary for a leader to know when to use authority and how best to do it. When a leader sees that the team is not performing optimally or is moving in a wrong direction, they need to do something. With or without authority, doing something means creating awareness and communicating the issue objectively, with sensitivity, as well as coming up with proposed solutions. The leader can rely on the group to decide and make necessary adjustments.

What if the group does not address the issue or addresses it unskillfully, perhaps getting into divisive blame games or simply misunderstanding the issue?

If this occurs, the leader with authority steps in and increasingly uses her authority, like a beneficent dictator, enabling the group for the sake of achieving the goal. The leader without authority may have to accept the dysfunction and make the best of it. Making the best of it includes influencing the others, setting a good example, or just getting one own work done as best as one can.

Adapting to the Situation

Leading is the art of adapting fully to the needs of the situation. Applying direct authority may be the right thing to do in a group having weak internal leadership, communication and relationship issues, or misunderstandings about vision and goals. Direct use of authority may also be warranted when time is short, and responses must be quick and right.

Applying authority in healthier groups becomes less necessary as the strengths and weaknesses of the participants are recognized, accepted, investigated and balanced within the group.

Note that even when one has authority, it is best to use it as a last resort. It is far more effective to treat mature and capable subordinates as peers.

According to Lao Tzu, the Taoist philosopher, “The best leaders are those the people hardly know exist. They act without effort and teach without words.” The wise leader recognizes that she does best when she takes the role of a selfless servant, let’s go enough to allow the natural flow to take its course, finding the right balance of yielding and directing when necessary.


Perhaps the most difficult aspect of leadership is recognizing one’s own limitations. Objectivity, when it comes to oneself and one’s ideas or judgments, is a challenge. When there are objective criteria and time to apply, it is easier. However, even then there is a struggle to accept that one’s own ideas are suboptimal. At the same time, it is necessary to accept the reality that your idea is superior when you think it is. A big part of effective leadership is recognizing that in projects, and business in general, the majority does not rule. Often, a minority of one has a superior concept or understanding than the majority. It is the leaders job to make sure the most effective plans, designs, and approaches prevail and the people think “we did this ourselves.”

The leader’s ultimate goal is to make sure the team achieves its objectives, optimally. To do so, the leader must balance gut feel subjectivity, with analytical objectivity. They must apply sensitivity as well as direct confrontation. Self-awareness, cultivated by mindfully and objectively observing feelings, words, and behavior and their effects on self and others, is essential. It provides the subtle knowledge needed to apply the right type of leadership at the right time with the right people.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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