The Forceful and Enabling Polarity:  A Fresh Look at an Old Distinction

Robert E. Kaplan & Robert B. Kaiser

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A two-factor model of leadership has been around for a long time and has taken several related forms, whether it be in contrasting a task vs people-orientation, initiation vs consideration, autocratic vs democratic, or directive vs participative styles. In this paper, we take a unique perspective on these two equally important sides of leadership. And we describe the development of an innovative multi-rater feedback tool for measuring a leader’s use of them. 

We identify the two sides as forceful leadership and enabling leadership. By forceful we mean leading off of one’s intellect and energy—taking stands, being decisive, making tough calls, holding people accountable, and so on. By enabling we mean creating conditions for other people to make a contribution—granting them autonomy, being receptive to their influence, providing support, helping them feel valued, and so forth. 

Our contribution is to construe these two sides of leadership as a polarity, two opposing qualities that hold the potential to complement one another. This polarity-based view of forceful and enabling leadership suggests a definition of effectiveness as versatility; literally, the ability to turn to either side as needed. It is in the nature of any polarity that a person can strike a balance between the two or be overbalanced on one side or the other. To be overbalanced, to be lopsided, is to overdo one side and underdo the other. Therefore, coming at it from the other end, a definition of managerial ineffectiveness could be lopsidedness. In fact, this is what our years of experience consulting to top managers have revealed: performance problems often take the polarized form of being too forceful and not enough enabling, or vice-versa.

Yet the typical approach to measuring leadership has not provided for the fact that some executives are too forceful while others, the minority, are too enabling. The traditional method relies on rating scales based on the linear assumption that “more is better.” We often make the mistake of assuming that high scores somehow indicate better performance, glossing over the well-known fact that too much of a good thing isn’t so good. For example, although it is important for leaders to take strong stands and declare their positions, when done too often with too much intensity it can be dominating and shut out the potential contributions of others. 

Departing from tradition, our measure includes a rating scale that ranges from “does too little” to “does the right amount” to “does too much.” It directly measures both underdoing and overdoing, thus providing feedback about what is being neglected as well as what good things are being taken too far.

Data from traditional measures would have us believe that managers who are effective with forceful leadership are also effective at using enabling leadership. This is evident in the positive correlation routinely found between measures of the two sides of leadership. But this is clearly at odds with everyday experience: we are all familiar with managers’ tendencies to lead primarily with one approach to the neglect of the other. And in fact this is what we find with data on our new scale: there is an inverse relationship between managers’ use of forceful and enabling styles. In other words, managers who overuse forceful tend to underutilize enabling leadership, and vice-versa.

We use ratings on both forceful and enabling scales to derive an index of versatility. This score represents the degree to which a manager makes optimal use of both sides of leadership. Although relatively few managers in our database demonstrate the ability to draw equally from forceful and enabling approaches, we find that there is a strong relationship between the versatility index and ratings of overall effectiveness. Thus, there appears to be ample opportunity for managers to enhance their leadership effectiveness by developing skill at using both forceful and enabling approaches and recognizing when to appropriately apply them. The present instrument is an effective tool for helping managers to understand their leadership style and versatility as well as what they need to do to enhance their effectiveness.