Byron's Babbles

My New Leadership Talent: Spinning Plates!

file1Coming to grips with the multiple parts to any organization is invaluable for leaders trying to keep their people and priorities in balance at a time when cultural and leadership change sometimes seems an existential imperative. Just as a circus performer deftly spins plates or bowls to keep them moving and upright, so must leaders constantly intervene to encourage the sorts of behavior that align an organization with its top priorities. Masters in this circus manipulation art can barely keep 100 plates spinning at a time. How many plates can any harried player-manager handle? Typically, less than a dozen.

Today, for the first time in my life I did a plate spinning act for our entire school staff. I had been using the metaphor for a few months now because of all of the things we have going on. In fact, I would many times just make a motion like I was spinning a plate. Therefore, I decided in my opening session that I would spin plates. For being my first time it went very well – I think. I even used the act introduce our newest administrators by passing them a poll with a spinning plate as an act of passing the torch, so to speak. The plates really represent all the facets, initiatives, paradoxes, parts of an organization a leader must be focused on. Spend to much time on one plate and the others fall. Left too long without attention, they run out of energy, start spinning out of control, and may come crashing to the floor. Personal development, coaching, performance management, addressing team dynamics, and reinforcing objectives are all forms of plate spinning. The leader must find the exact right balance.

Embracing the paradoxes can be uncomfortable. Yet the act of trying to reconcile these tensions helps leaders keep their eyes on all their spinning plates and identify when interventions are needed to keep the organization lined up with its top priorities. I believe approaching leadership much like plate spinning makes it possible to avoid the frustration of many leaders I’ve witnessed, who pick the extremes by either trying to stifle complex behavior by building powerful and rigid top-down structures, or by looser, more laissez-faire styles of management that expose the messy realities of human endeavor. Far more centered and high performing, in my experience, are those leaders who welcome the inconvenient contradictions of organizational life.file

This is why I am such a believer in engagement and empowerment of everyone on the team. With an intent-based leadership philosophy where everyone is a leader, all individuals have a role in keeping the plates spinning. Empowerment is fundamentally an individualized equation, or what I call hyper-personalized. What might make one employee engaged might turn off the next person – we, as leaders, must be able to read these turn-ons and turn-offs. There are many variables that can impact any one person’s engagement, and the mix is individually unique. You can’t just become a better plate spinner. You have to find ways to keep the plates spinning on their own.


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  1. […] this gem of the circus act of spinning plates. In fact I used this same metaphor in my blog post My New Leadership Talent: Spinning Plates! The question really becomes paradoxical as to whether we should be spinning plates, or at the very […]


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