Friday, January 25, 2013

The Pendulum Theory in Leadership

     Early in my career I discovered what I would call the Pendulum Theory in Leadership. Isaac Newton's "Law of Motion" says for every action there is a reaction.  The Pendulum Theory states that a force or motion always comes back.   In other words "the pendulum always swings back".  This theory can actually work in most areas of a person's life – politics, personal decisions, decisions at work.

     Here is an example of this theory at work in a leadership setting.  Early in my administrative career, I wanted to crack down on certain items in the high school handbook.  Sometimes in life it's necessary to have some discipline in an area that might be getting a little out of control.  If the students were not paying attention to an area of the handbook, then I had to step up and do my job as a building principal.  I pushed the pendulum and would get them into the routine of following the rules.  Inevitably the pendulum would come back my way.  It came back in various forms – time spent on tasks, students’ lack of cooperation, answering parents’ questions and, in some cases, complaints.  Not everything associated with the back swing was negative.  Sometimes the swing back was thoughtful gestures, thank yous and support from staff and parents.  At other times, the swing back changed the rules or how the process was handled.  Either way, the rule for the theory is clear: The pendulum always swings back.
     The back swing of a pendulum can be exhausting for a leader.  It can be physically and even emotionally draining.  If a leader isn't careful, the pendulum back swing will knock you on your butt.  There is one main preventative step that a leader can take to lessen the blow.  Communication.  If the rationale for pushing the pendulum forward is communicated effectively, people will have a better understanding of why the pendulum is being pushed in the first place.  Some people may still not like the force being pushed their way, but when a leader communicates effectively they can always fall back on the fact that the information was provided before the pendulum motion was started.  
      It is important to remember that this should not prevent a leader from making the right choices.  It is just something that needs to be thought about and prepared for when making a decision.  If law or policy dictates the pendulum to be pushed, then so be it.  Thinking about the back swing motion will help a leader identify the individuals or groups to which they need to communicate before putting everything into motion.  Some questions a leader could ask before setting the pendulum in motion are:

  • What individuals or groups will be affected by this decision?
  • What needs to be communicated before making the decision?
  • Is this decision important enough to outweigh the impact of the back swing?
  • What will be the fallout from the back swing to myself, the people I work with, and the organization I am leading?  Will the fallout be positive or negative?
     These few questions and others that you might think of will help you evaluate the decision you make and the result of the pendulum back swing.  For a leader this process takes a little longer, but thinking through the decision and the effects of a backswing will be well worth the time spent.  Keep this in mind: the pendulum will always swing back.  Don't let it knock you on your butt.

1 comment:

Josh Swartz said...

Will add this one to the metaphor collection. Very good stuff.