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paradox and leadershipFor sure, our brains prefer simplicity. I know mine does!

In a world where we’re pressed for time and performance, we instinctively look for ideas and solutions that support how we think—and ignore evidence to the contrary (the dreaded confirmation bias at work).

Deciding “either/or” is quick, easy, and sometimes an enormous mistake, one that endangers our leadership abilities.

Especially if what we’re faced with is a “both/and” leadership situation. Like delivering both results and relationships. If we pick one of the other, we lose. So do our teams and the business.

Delivering on both is managing a paradox.

And that’s wicked hard work.

Rascally paradoxes

Paradoxes are conflicting choices, conditions, assertions, or sentiments that demand our equal attention.

Paradoxes have the audacity to seem to be contradictory. Come on, you want both quality and quantity?!

Paradoxes can even appear to be opposed to common sense. How can I foster both stability and innovation?

But, when we take the time to thoughtfully reflect on a paradox, it becomes obvious that both elements are true and needed, especially if we’re taking the long view. For business continuity, results must be delivered. For employee engagement, relationships must be built and maintained.

Paradoxes present themselves regularly as we lead ourselves, our teams, and our organizations.

Leaders take the upper hand in managing paradox

Leaders account for task completion and relationship building.

Leaders balance mission against margin, and deliver on both.

Leaders deliver short-term results and innovate for the long-term.

Leaders understand the details and see the big picture.

Leaders lead teams that can both compete and collaborate internally and externally.

Leaders create work environments where there’s independence coupled with interdependence.

Leaders deliver success and learn from failure.

Are you worthy of the leadership name?

No leader worthy of the name would forfeit relationships for tasks or tasks for relationship. The same is true for sacrificing diversity for the comfort of uniformity. The extremes don’t work as a single either/or solution; they require a both/and orientation.

The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly. ~Jim Rohn

There’s no choosing

Alain Paul Martin, past president of The Professional Development Institute and Fellow of Advanced Leadership at Harvard University, spent 15 years studying exemplary leaders. He discovered that exemplary leaders shared “the predisposition and capacity to hold in their heads two opposing ideas at once.”

In short, they knew how to manage paradox.

These leaders knew that dealing with paradox is what executive coach and author Marshall Goldsmith called a “path to perception, understanding, communication, and a more efficient organization.”

The “right” solution for effective leadership is to deliver both elements of a paradox. There’s no choosing one over the other. 

A leadership tool for managing differences

Sometimes we position our thinking at either end of a paradox and dig in, strongly defending the “rightness” of our opinion. We can’t do that because paradoxes are interdependent, context specific, and require boatloads of sensitivity and self-awareness to manage.

Smart leaders know that working across, through, and with differences is what they must do.

How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress. ~Niels Bohr 

What say you?

Is managing paradox the secret sauce for successful leadership?


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