Cliff Kayser, Vice President at Polarity Partnerships, LLC., President and Founder of XPERIENCE, LLC. and Kayser Ridge, ICF Certified Coach, and Faculty Member in a number of academic institutions where he teaches Polarity Coaching including: The George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-being’s Advanced Coaching Certificate program, and The Gestalt Institute of Cleveland

#017: Leveraging Polarities to Drive Leadership & Team Coaching

Join Dr. Krister Lowe and leading organizational coach Cliff Kayser for this week’s episode of The Team Coaching Zone Podcast.  Cliff is a Vice President at Polarity Partnerships, LLC as well as the President and Founder of XPERIENCE, LLC and Kayser Ridge (a retreat center).  Cliff holds Masters Degrees in Human Resources Management and Organizational Development, both from American University. He completed his ICF Coaching Certification at The Georgetown Executive Leadership Coaching Program.  Cliff has 25 years of experience in organization development consulting, coaching, and leadership training. Prior to joining Polarity Partnerships in 2012 and launching XPERIENCE, LLC in 2007, Cliff was Vice President of Organizational Development and Training for The National Cooperative Bank (NCB) and spent nearly a decade serving The Washington Post newspaper as Senior Organization Development Consultant and The Washington Post Company as Corporate Manager of Human Resources, Training & Web Development. Cliff is a faculty or adjunct faculty member for: The American University’s Master’s in Organization Development and KEY Executive Certificate Program; The Advanced Coaching Certificate program at George Mason Center for the Advancement of Well-being; The Gestalt Institute of Cleveland; The Federal Executive Institute under the Office of Personnel Management; and The 2-year Mastery Program in Polarity Thinking.  In this episode of the podcast, Cliff introduces listeners to “polarity thinking” and illustrates how this powerful framework can be used to drive leadership and team coaching.  Themes explored in the episode include: an introduction to polarity thinking; polarity maps; solvable problems vs. polarities; the 5-step process to leveraging polarities (Seeing, Mapping, Assessing, Learning, Leveraging); using polarities to go from “Good to Great” and more.  Cliff shares examples from his own practice of helping clients leverage polarities to drive leadership, team and organizational development.  Leadership and team coaches will find the polarity framework and tools a powerful addition to their coaching toolkit!


Learn more about Cliff at: 







1. Johson, B. (2014). A perspective on paradox and its application to modern management. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 50, 206-212.

2. Downloads on Polarity Thinking (Provided by Cliff):

3. Books on Polarity Management:

4.  Trainings on Polarities:



Part 1 – Getting to Know the Coach: Cliff Kayser


  • Vice president of Polarity Partnerships
  • President and Founder of Xperience and a retreat center at Kayser Ridge
  • Based in Washington DC
  • Two Masters degrees in Human Resources Management and Organizational Development from American University
  • Completed ICF coaching certification at Georgetown Executive Leadership Coaching Program.
  • More than 25 years experience in organizational development, consulting, coaching, and leadership training
  • Prior to joining Polarity Partnerships in 2012 and launching Xperience LLC in 2007, he was the vice president of organizational development training at the National Cooperative Bank and spent a decade serving the Washington Post newspaper as a senior organizational consultant and the Washington Post company as corporate manager of human resources training and web development
  • Faculty or adjunct faculty for a number of institutes and universities, including the advanced coaching certificate program for the George Mason Center for the Advancement of Wellbeing and the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland.
  • Passion for philosophy and practice of Tai Chi
  • Built a retreat center in Berkeley Springs, WV. Colleagues also use it in OD and coaching field.
  • Great place for our community to do our work with teams and learning events, reconnecting with nature.

Polarity Partnerships

  • Formed in 2010 by Dr. Barry Johnson, who wrote Polarity Management: How to Identify and Manage Unsolvable Problems. Book came out in early 90s. Johnson’s manifesto. He’s in the process of writing the updated book.
  • Co-founders of Polarity Partnerships: Jake Jacobs – wrote Real Time Strategic Change, Leslie DePaul – CEO. In 2012, three others joined: Susan and Peter Dupre (brother and sister), and Cliff.
  • Center for Creative Leadership is one of their partners – work with organizations who want to bring a polarity lens, who can license assessment tool and can deploy polarity thinking as core thinking of team.
  • Measurement tools now to measure based on interdependent pairs.
  • Cliff is Vice President of Mastering Coaching Programs. Developing formalized coaching program based on polarity theory and principles. When it’s ready, it will be a world class program. Does pieces of it in GMU and Gestalt.

Kayser Ridge/Xperience

  • Cliff’s sister, Lori Mishos – executive coach who graduated from Georgetown — took over Xperience. She’s out of Sarasota, FL. Cliff runs Kayser Ridge retreat center.

Journey into Coaching

  • Was always involved in the development side of whatever job, loved training and management development side.
  • Started getting into eastern philosophy in 1986. Came across the Tao Te Ching in free bin in a bookstore – book is about individual wellbeing, social harmony, and evolving consciousness – resonated in terms of own interests. 81 poems. Description of yin and yang energy. Created summary version and converted it into poetry, like the original.
  • Eastern philosophy opened door to polarity thinking
  • Tai Chi – a way to embody a physical manifestation of yin yang energy
  • Interest in human development led to the HR path.
  • Ended up at Washington Post company. Had responsibility for large scale systems change projects, with the coming of the internet.
  • Highly decentralized organization, so there was a lot of resistance to consolidation and centralization.
  • Made many mistakes along the way, and knew needed more training – Masters in OD.
  • Read Barry Johnson’s book, Polarity Management – yin yang energy for the workplace.
  • Every organization deals with tension around structure and flexibility.
  • Seemed like a good model, started following Barry Johnson around.
  • When at National Cooperative Bank, hired Barry.
  • Left Washington Post Company and took opportunity at National Cooperative Bank as VP of OD.
  • Mission focused bank. As they became more successful, they had the question: are we about mission or margin (money)?
  • Polarity model helped them to see it wasn’t an either/or.
  • Trouble holding themselves accountable for performance – overfocused on cooperation.
  • Took a lot of training
  • 2007 – started Xperience, after financial crisis
  • Recognized that effectiveness as OD consultant was dependent on effectiveness dealing with leaders one-on-one. Led to coaching training.
  • Fastest application of polarity thinking is one-on-one coaching. Leaders recognize need for team to support tensions in systems.
  • Download of a polarity map available at teamcoachingzone.com/resources


  • There’s a distinction worth making – is it a problem to solve? Or is it not a problem to be solved (i.e., is it a polarity?)
  • Polarity is unsolvable by its nature
  • Term of polarity grew out of Gestalt
  • Polarity Partnerships’ definition of a polarity: interdependent pair (i.e., inhale/exhale, activity/rest) of things that need each other over time. Energy exchange between the two poles. They’re leverageable, not solvable. You can’t choose one or the other.
  • Leveraging polarity – intentional synergistic effect, optimization of the tension, generative effect.
  • Biggest problem that leaders get into is choosing a pole of the polarity as a solution.
  • Examples of polarities: Focusing on relationship and process, performance and development, individual and team
  • Be mindful not to choose terms that are negative. I.e., structure and ambiguity. Most people consider ambiguity a negative. Is it possible to find another pole that would be a positive? Maybe “flexibility” instead of “ambiguity.”
  • Every coach would benefit from memorizing how the dynamic works – individual and team (the part and the whole). But when working at team level, the team may be talking about itself as the part and the company is the whole – this dynamic is common.
  • Exercise: look at polarity map – put “part” in the left pole, and “whole” in the right pole. Benefits of part: freedom, uniqueness, initiative. Benefits of the whole: equality, connectedness, synergy. But if you stay there too long without focusing on part, end up with dysfunction, and vice versa.
  • For every polarity, there’s a greater purpose that both poles contribute to. I.e., inhale/exhale – maintain life. Activity/rest – endurance and recovery toward winning a marathon.
  • Part and whole will vary from team to team. Mission and vision of organization will connect.
  • We tend to put the pole that’s emphasized on the left side, but this is a danger. Maps are custom and individual. There’s a predictability about the dynamic. Unique experience of tension is different for everyone. Downsides of too much rest, downsides of too much activity? You decide.
  • All upsides of each pole contribute to higher purpose that both values share.
  • Early warning signs – tell you when you’re starting to dip down into one of the poles. The stronger your measurements that indicate that you’re dipping into the downside, the better (i.e., comments from people on the team).
  • To be a great team: tie success of your team to both poles of a number of polarities.
  • Story: Barry Johnson’s son qualified for Boston Marathon four times, but only ran three times. Fourth time tried to beat his previous times. Overtrained and pushed through pain. Overfocused on activity at expense of rest. Was diagnosed with terrible hairline fractures. Consequently was on the downside of rest. By overfocusing on downside of one pole for too long, was subject to downside of another. Vicious cycle.
  • Polarity thinking can be applied to many fields – Jane Kise wrote about it in education reform, Bonnie Wesorick will write about it with regard to healthcare
  • Polarity lenses can help leaders to see a problem differently
  • Five Step Process of Polarity Thinking
    1. See it – identify the polarity (can be a challenge because people are very attached to pole preferences and may want to advocate for a pole as a solution)
    2. Map it
    3. Assess how well or poorly you’re leveraging the polarity (have several tools for this)
    4. Learning from the assessment
    5. Develop action steps, early warning sides, tactical strategies

Part 2 – Stories & Five Step Process

Case Study 1

  • Worked with an association that was using Good to Great (by Jim Collins) and thought it was very valuable, but wanted to inject more life into it over time.
  • Jim Collins calls them tensions, and these can be enhanced with polarity thinking.
  • Polarities will always be there in any organization.
  • Put the Jim Collins model on steroids – can see how the dynamics work (i.e., infinity loop, recognize that tensions work as a pair, as a system).
  • Jim Collins polarities: Candor and diplomacy, will and humility, preserve the core and stimulate change, etc.
  • Competency model was being undertaken for leadership by another consultancy – when doing the research, saw that the term polarity kept coming up, so they put Cliff in touch with that person.
  • Company’s competency model was subsequently laid out in pairs. I.e., focus on data and focus on your gut.
  • Polarity also noted as “paradox” in the business literature – feel this is an unfortunate name because it’s self-referential and contradictory.
  • Some people think polarity is a negative term, too. Misconception that if you can’t solve it, it must be negative.
  • Everyone is struggling with limited resources, and the energy created through polarity is free for the taking.
  • Polarity approach for continuity and transformation – in our field we are often associated with the change pole, but that’s one pole of a polarity. Radical change requires radical stability. If you try to change too fast, you will undermine your own change effort.
  • Polarities provide stability because they’re not going anywhere – they’re not solvable.

Case Study 2

  • Pharmaceutical company that started buying BioTech firms. Created tension around: pharma v. biotech.
  • Different people were attached to different poles.
  • Realized that it wasn’t an either/or but needed to pay attention to the history.
  • Needed to not overfocus on either one as a solution. Renamed what they did as “bio-pharma.”

Part 3 – Parting Advice/Recommendations/Resources

Resources Recommended by Cliff

  • See Resources section of the Polarity Partnerships website
  • Kise, J. A. G. (2013). Unleashing the Positive Power of Differences: Polarity Thinking in Our Schools (1 edition). Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.
  • Oswald, R. M., & Johnson, B. (2009). Managing Polarities in Congregations: Eight Keys for Thriving Faith Communities. Herndon, VA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
  • Seidler, M. (2008). Power Surge: A Conduit for Enlightened Leadership (First edition). Amherst, Mass.: HRD Press, Inc.


  • Through Gestalt Institute of Cleveland: June 3, 17 and 24th – online training with Cliff
  • In person foundational training to get certified – sessions at retreat center in May, June, August and September – info on website
  • Learning community that meets twice a year. Next meeting at Center for Creative Leadership.

Levels of training

  • Basic: Gestalt program doesn’t give you certification but gives you exposure
  • Certification: pre-req to attending advanced PACT training (PACT: Polarity Approach for Continuity and Transformation – tool) five days to get PACT certified
  • 10% discount for anyone who mentions that they heard about the training through the Team Coaching Zone, for the Foundations training at Kayser Ridge.

 Parting Advice

  • Since each leader is working within a system, polarity lens provides a solid bridge. You’re providing a real gift to that system. There’s a science to how the tension works which polarity can explain.

Contact Cliff:

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