Beyond Binary World Views: How embracing polarities helps leaders deal more effectively with complexity - Part 1

As a long-time passionate advocate for healthy, human sport, I have made a conscious decision to focus on hope-filled solutions to counter so much of the negative and depleted narrative that is dominating the national sport scene of late. For decades I spoke about how sport needed a system overhaul and far too often, these comments and invitations were met with raised eyebrows. Now that people are committed to resolving the issues that have been keeping sport stuck, I’ve decided to focus on sharing the good work Sport Law has been supporting to nurture and strengthen the leadership capacity of leaders, coaches and athletes through our specialized leadership training including the NOVA Profile, the Sport Leaders Retreats, the Sport Culture Index, and so much more. In addition, we’ll be sharing some of the practices we’ve developed for leaders as we hope it will help to resource people who might benefit from honing their leadership muscles.

This blog is designed to help people intentionally challenge conventional ways of dealing with complexity.

We often see the world through the lens of either/or, good or bad, right or wrong, winning or wellness. Rather than hold a binary worldview, modern-day leaders are being challenged to think, differently. Part of this shift in worldview requires us to hold multiple truths, some of which we might view as polarities or “the state of having two opposite or contradictory tendencies, opinions or aspects.” For instance, I might believe that people can be either high performers focused on getting results or caring people focused on ensuring others are feeling supported. I might believe that I can’t be both at the same time. Humans tend to assign meaning or preference to a way of being, leading, parenting, coaching, and living. If we take the previous belief of being a high performer, I might believe this is important because it allows me to fulfill my full potential. I might also believe that if I start caring about others it might distract me from the need I have to focus on results. And I might hold an assumption that distractions are bad. Hence, we limit our capacity to think about the strengths and attributes of what it means to be focused on others which in turn might negatively impact our capacity to deliver on the results. Conversely, If I’m the kind of person who holds that focusing on others is primordial because it allows us to achieve a common purpose and strengthens our ability to do meaningful work, I might believe that being focused on myself and my needs to perform and deliver results is being selfish. I might then suppress my own needs for self-fulfillment to support the whole, which creates a false divide between what is healthy for the whole and what might be healthy for the humans inside the whole.

Feeling a bit confused? Keep reading.

As an Integral Coach, I often participate in global coaching gatherings to learn from some of the world’s leading experts on human development, cultural intelligence, and conscious leadership. At a recent gathering, I enjoyed learning from Beena Sharma, a consultant who specializes in embedding developmental theory and integral approaches to human and system development.  I found it refreshing to learn about her way of holding polarities.  Inspired by the work of Dr. Barry Johnson, they define polarity as a “pair of interdependent positive opposites that are both strengths or values needed over time for a healthy, thriving, self-organizing system (human). Going back to our previous example, we might explore how we focus on self-actualizing and also care about the whole. How can being self-centred allow more opportunities for others to grow? In what ways does taking care of my needs positively impact others on my team? Can you feel how this way of holding polarities creates time, space and expansion?

When we pause, reflect and consider what might be possible if what is seemingly opposite is in fact complimentary, it allows us to consider a fuller and more holistic version of the story (belief) we are telling ourselves. Life is rarely lived on either extreme – it is often in the messy middle that we find ourselves grappling with what it means to be human.

And sport leaders know a thing or two about leading during complex times.

To support your desire to expand your capacity to be with polarities, here are a few principles to embrace:

  • Inclusive: All polarities have two, equally important points of view
  • Integration: Both points of view are accurate, but neither is complete
  • Complimentary: Values come in pairs. Strengths and competencies come in pairs. Wisdom comes in pairs.
  • Balance: Over focus on one pole will result in the downside of the over-focused pole. This also means that the greater the value for one pole, the greater the tolerance for its downside. Privileging one pole will undermine the very same pole, as well as both poles over time
  • Openness: Seeing one point of view as the complete picture will generate resistance from those who have the alternate, equally valid point of view
  • Embracing wholeness: Trying to do away with one pole of polarity is an exercise in futility and an experience of stuckness
  • Complexity: Either/ Or and Both/And is itself a polarity to manage – the rejection of either/or thinking is an example of either/or thinking.

As with any skill, we must practice embodying it. Take the necessary time to consider your own values and strengths before applying them within organizations or groups you work with.

Practice 1

Take a moment to complete the exercise below using the provided quadrant to log your thoughts (this practice is inspired by Beena Sharma and Dr. Barry Johnson’s work):

Step 1: Take a moment to name a quality/core value that you have that you are proud of and write it in the middle of the box on the left side of the quadrant.

Step 2: What do you value from this quality and what do you gain?

Step 3: When you become excessive in living into this quality or value, you become …

Step 4: When this happens (become excessive), you would like to be more …

Step 5: What do you fear if you start focusing on what you’ve named in step 4?

Step 6: As you review what you have written, in what ways can both be true? Steps 2 and 4 allow us to access our integrated self where we access optimal health and vitality. Steps 3 and 5 allow us to notice when we might be less healthy and feel scared and depleted. Some reflection questions include:

  • What new meaning might you make of internal stories or beliefs that could be keeping you stuck?
  • Commit to noticing when you get stuck in your unintegrated self and pause in those moments to get curious about the situation, the beliefs, assumptions, or stories.
  • Make a commitment to try something new from the polarity that you haven’t been deploying. See what shifts.

Step 1: Name of value/strength

Step 2: What I value about this quality, and what I gain …

Step 3: When I do too much of the above, I am …     

Step 4: When I become excessive this value, I would like to be more …

Step 5: What I fear – if I do too much of the above …

My next blog will examine how the system is currently staying divided, in part because of how we are holding safety issues and owning the podium as binary constructs.

At Sport Law, we believe it will take a village to move through this deeply divisive and complex time. We also believe that sport is such an important public asset that we must all vow to work through it in a manner that reflects positive values, openness, and emotional intelligence. For ideas on how to navigate these brackish waters, please feel free to reach out to Dina at

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