Persistent Tension in Academic Leadership and How to Make it Productive

Rope splitting due to tension

Leadership is hard

Let’s face it, leadership is hard and exhausting. Leadership was hard before the Covid-19 pandemic, and the additional complexities that leaders have been facing over the past year have been significant. Leaders at all levels are increasingly finding themselves making more decisions more quickly, with more significance, and with less information. The risks we are managing have increased. Our teams are looking to us for vision and guidance while we manage all of this new complexity and challenge.

And we are doing all of this while working at our kitchen tables and in virtual meetings. We have had to acquire a whole new set of skills to lead in a remote or hybrid environment literally overnight. Leading teams and managing ourselves during these conditions is not for the faint hearted and it necessitates that we build our toolkit to tackle leadership in new ways. Now we are starting to look to the future with hope and optimism, knowing that some things will never return to the way they were before the pandemic. They can’t, and in many ways, they shouldn’t. Acknowledging and validating that the work of leading is hard right now (and really always was) is an important truth we can’t overlook, and by doing so we can make space and open the door to new ideas, new supports, and new approaches.

One of the things that makes leadership so hard is that it is full of persistent and multiple tensions wherever you look. Effectively navigating and balancing the tensions we face is no small task but if we take the time to thoughtfully approach the tensions we face not only can we mitigate the negative side of tension we can actually make them productive!

4 steps to unlocking the productive power of leadership tensions

Reframing tensions from things that are hard and overwhelming to things that can be productive and supportive of our leadership style is the key to unlocking their power. As Dodd and Favaro (2006) established, the vast majority of leaders notice these tensions however, most struggle to manage them effectively and they can often feel like an issue to solve. We suggest that even though it may seem counterintuitive, tensions don’t need solving; they rather need to be harnessed so they can enhance and contribute productively to your leadership practice and organizational objectives.

We can unlock the potential of the tensions we experience by working through 4 key steps:

  1. Identify the tension
    What is the polarity you are trying to manage? Capture this tension in words that resonate with you and have meaning to your context. Think about how this tension fits into your current state.
  2. Inventory each side of the tension
    Spend some time identifying the pros and cons of each side of the tension you are facing. Where is there flexibility and what items remain static? What is the best-case outcome for this situation? What risks are present here? What additional information do you need?
  3. Choose a balance and look for feedback cues
    Once you have defined the tension and identified the pros and cons of the tension you are faced with, use this information to inform your decision as to what side of the tension will serve you best in this situation. When sharing this approach with your team, watch for feedback cues to see if your approach is resonating and adjust as necessary.
  4. Experiment and reflect (plan, do, check, act)
    Give yourself permission to be flexible and to change your approach if the information you are receiving justifies a different direction. These tensions are not black and white issues to solve, they require careful management that may require us to change and adjust along the way.

Let’s explore what these four steps look like in practice with some real world examples.

Watch this video with Melissa and Norma to learn more about persistent tension and how to make it productive.

Step 1: Identify the tension

If we accept that there is a productive capacity for tension, then how can we better access that capacity? We argue that you need to engage in active, intentional exploration of any tension in order to unlock the gifts they can provide you as a leader and by extension to your organization. By not exploring and actively identifying tensions it is far too easy to fall back into polarized thinking that pits each side of a particular tension in opposition. When we feel like we are caught between two opposing forces a couple of things can happen. On the one hand, we may become paralyzed to act, this creates risk for us and our organizations, sucks our energy, and can lead to feelings of powerlessness and overwhelm. On the other hand, many of us will revert to habit or preference for one side of a tension and as a result lose the opportunity to harness the potential of the other side and by extension fail to act more inclusively, creatively, and sustainably.

Moreover, when you make a specific point to identify a tension you can then explore it more deeply along with looking at your own responses to it. This will help enhance your self-awareness, which builds your capacity to access the opportunities and power within each side of a tension. Ultimately, as leaders we should be working to create environments that encourage inclusivity, diversity, creativity and are sustainable and achieve outcomes. So instead of just passively experiencing tension, make a point of identifying them actively so you can explore them in a way that supports this aim.

Take a minute and close your eyes, think about your last week and some of the main issues and feelings you experienced over the course of those five days. We bet at more than one point you felt that you were being pulled between two competing forces. As leaders, we are constantly required to hold multiple tensions in our minds simultaneously, to sit in discomfort and find a way to make it all work. So lets give voice to that discomfort and identify the tensions that were at play. Here are some the cropped up for us in the last few weeks, do any of these resonate for you?

  • Get things done quickly and empower your staff;
  • Respond to the many requests coming your way and also carve out space to lead and convene important conversations;
  • Create a vision for the future and a plan to get there while maintaining the important day-to-day operation of the organization;
  • Amplify the work of those around us while not neglecting the need to focus on ourselves and our own goals and objectives;
  • Create a work environment that includes high expectations and high support for the teams we lead.

Labelling a tension means we don’t just experience the tension but rather give ourselves the opportunity to build our skill for sitting with discomfort, help us gain structure to reframe our perspective into a more nuanced appreciation of an issue, and allow us to practice actively holding two seemingly opposing ideas in our minds at one time. By doing this we are better able to identify with and engage a more diverse group of stakeholders and collaborators, get more creative with our solutions and approaches and find peace in the endless ambiguity we are experiencing.

Step 2: Inventory each side of the tension

Tensions aren’t something to be resisted, no matter how uncomfortable they may feel. By taking a step back and reflecting on a tension you are experiencing you can begin to reframe it from two polarities that are in competition with one another to a duality that can serve us if we can understand and access both sides. Each side of a tension you observe and experience in your workday doesn’t need to be thought of as good or bad, all tension can be productive.

For example, the “survive versus thrive” tension. On the surface we all want to be in a thriving position. But there is a real strength in knowing how and when to access and actively foster a “survive” mentality. In many cases living in survive mode is advantageous to managing energy, recognizing the reality of a context like COVID 19, and because it is an instinctually driven response it is in many ways “easier” for people to access. So rather than fighting “survive” mode during the pandemic ask yourself what does the survive side of the survive/thrive tension give me and my team that serves us, and when and how can I consciously acknowledge this side to provide proactive respite for the groups I serve?

When September 2020 rolled around not only were we getting ready to launch the Fall 2020 term at our institution, we were also facing the reality that the majority of our management staff were gearing up for the start of back to school for K-12, many having small children in that system. In our jurisdiction, parents were able to choose either face-to-face learning for K-12 or online. In either case it was going to be a big undertaking as we were all still working remotely.

In considering how we would support managers as “whole people” and not just workers we thought about what tangible actions would allow them to make it through the early days of Fall and we focused primarily on the “survive” side of the equation. We knew drop-off and pick-ups were going to be major logistical undertakings or simply making sure computers were up and running for Zoom learning. Our managers needed to be parents first and needed to be present in ways that looked different than they had in a pre-Covid world.

One action we took was to create a document where all managers could identify schedule pressures that would be new for them in our pre-existing structure. Based on this information we changed the times of standing meetings, ensured that we avoided required work during windows of time that would be difficult for staff and focused instead on creating breathing room for our teams so they didn’t feel torn between their work obligations and the needs of their families. We also let folks know that if they didn’t have kids but had other competing pressures that had a time element, they could identify those as well. Finally, we labelled what we were doing in the context of making sure our team members had what they needed to “survive” this period of time. Work/life balance is not a matter of thriving in a global pandemic, it is a matter of survival. Acknowledging that this wasn’t about ensuring they could be superstar performers but rather that they could get through the start of school and start of term was a more authentic and contextually appropriate way to approach our work at that time.

As time has progressed a number of these staff have expressed how meaningful this small action was to their ability to cope and navigate the early days of Fall. As staff have figured out the new balance of their lives, we have been able to refine our practices and more consciously pursue opportunities to thrive. Interestingly, what a focus on “survive” did in this period is now informing practices of what it will look like to “thrive” in the years to come. Acknowledging our staff as whole people more directly and more consciously will now continue as an important element in making our organization and its people thrive. If we had started from a “thrive” stance, we might have put undue pressure on those managers, failed to see the need to flex outside of current patterns, or asked them to be the architects of creative solutions to these issues at a time where their energy was better used helping their families navigate the transition back to school.

Step 3: Choose a balance and look for feedback cues

Once you have a sense of what tension or tensions you are dealing with and you have had a chance to think about the pros and cons offered by each side of a tension it’s time to act and consider a balance between the two, always remembering to watch for feedback cues from your stakeholders and yourself.

Imagine you are asked by the President of your institution to create a new strategy that will engage young alumni. The President has asked you to deliver a first concept of this strategy within 3 weeks. You know that you will need to rely on the members of your team to help contribute to this strategy and that this is not an insignificant amount of work. That old familiar feeling that a tension is at play crops up and you know that labelling what’s going on and looking at the sides of the issue is critical to finding a way through. The tension you discern is that of wanting to provide a high support environment while conveying your expectations for high performance. The team is under immense stress and this is also an opportunity to advance an areas of real significance that you have been advocating for over many years. The time is now but what’s the right balance to motivate the team and get it done?

Based on your assessment of the tension, you decide to strike a balance between high expectation and high support by engaging your team in a conversation about how best to manage this project. You decide to assign this additional workload to your team while being sure to offer as much flexibility as possible to your team as they work to meet this goal. When you inform your team of the project details you listen carefully to them for cues on whether you have hit the right balance. For example,

  • Is your team expressing excitement or stress?
  • Is everyone on the team reacting in the same way or are there different reactions that need to be considered?
  • Is there flexibility in how each team member can contribute that recognizes and develops their unique skills?
  • Are there tactics you can use such as shifting priorities and tasks to provide space for this new work?

By intentionally asking yourself these kinds of questions you are taking an intension step to implement a balanced approach but not neglecting the need to remain vigilant to the verbal and non-verbal feedback you are receiving. This will help ensure that your personal preference for either high support or high expectations doesn’t override the needs of the group. Ultimately, allowing you to be more inclusive and successful over time as well as with this particular initiative.

Step 4: Experiment and reflect (Plan, do, check, act)

While we would all love to be “one and done” with our leadership choices and management we know it doesn’t work like that. We also know that there is no such thing as the perfect decision, because conditions and people change, and we need to remain responsive to our ever shifting environments. Managing tensions and our approach to them requires continued and intentional responsiveness and most of all a willingness to experiment to keep the tension productive and balanced.

At the start of the pandemic, we were charged with leading a committee to manage the academic issues associated with our institution’s pandemic response. This group was to cover everything from grading scale adjustments to academic standing approaches, admissions practices and more. There were many leadership tensions at play here but one of the biggest was the need for the group to be both a “responder” to important issues coming from others across campus and the external public health emergency, and be leader or “convenor” for conversations, decisions and issues identified within the group.

Our decision on committee structure was informed by our thinking about how to manage this tension. Initially, we kept the group quite small and we worked with an agile methodology built around sprints and issues management that allowed us to respond to requests, and also develop proposals and lead on internally identified issues. We met frequently (25hrs of meetings in the first two weeks of the pandemic alone) and were able to successfully drive big change quickly. We also had a fairly consolidated leadership structure in which our office was responsible for managing the direction of the committee. This worked incredibly well in the early days and allowed us to implement a temporary change to our grading scale, change policy on academic standing, implement new methods for various admissions requirements, and support a lightning speed switch to remote delivery.

However, after a couple of months and as the pandemic settled in for the long-haul conditions started to shift. Having tackled the most immediate concerns we needed to look more broadly at issues, and also a little further down the road into our academic planning. We started hearing from members that we needed to expand the scope of membership to be more inclusive and think about how we better leverage other expertise. The issues we were called upon to respond to were changing from immediate to future oriented and the conversations members were looking to lead and convene were broadening in scope. Our structure no longer fit. At that point we moved to create an action team structure focused on important topic areas that would help us better balance the responder vs convenor tension. We asked colleagues with particular expertise to lead these teams and we developed a way for the broader group to come together and help set and support the agenda through intentional feedback and issues identification. We also grew our membership and put in place better back-ups to help sustain our high intensity work. Being open to keep experimenting allowed us to move with relative ease from one committee structure to another and ultimately kept our momentum and success going.

Taking an experimentation approach to tension management helps keep egos at bay and also ensures ongoing creativity so you don’t get stuck.

Knowing how to make tensions productive makes leadership easier

We started this article with the universal truth that leadership is hard, and it is! As leaders, we are motivated to leave things in a better place than we found them and that is no easy feat. So, we search for ways to build our toolkit, improve our practice, and enhance our approaches to be more effective. Part of building that toolkit is exploring and harnessing the power of the many tensions we contend with throughout our working lives so that they become productive and enhance our practice. The skills to explore, understand, and utilize tensions effectively can be developed intentionally, through reflection, experience, and coaching. “Leaders improve their effectiveness not by consistently emphasizing one approach over the other, but by developing the ambidexterity to move between the two as the context requires.” (Jordon, Wade, Teracino- 2020). So, spend some time with the tensions you face every day, give yourself the permission and mandate to experiment and it will help make the hard job of leading a little bit easier.


Dodd, Dominic, and Ken Favaro. “Managing the Right Tension.” Harvard Business Review, 1 Aug. 2014.

Jordan, Jennifer, et al. “Every Leader Needs to Navigate These 7 Tensions.” Harvard Business Review, 1 Mar. 2020.