Paradoxes in Leadership

Consulting is a very interesting field and it forces one to re-evaluate every rule in the book, to constantly observe, and to quickly learn and adapt. As consultants, we come across many paradoxes in organizational methodology, environment, etc. One such paradox is the ‘Paradox in Leadership’.

In my last article, Rules, Rules and Rules (read here), I touched upon this topic very briefly. Let’s look at it a little deeper!

In today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) business world, leaders are constantly at some cross-roads, trying to make business realities happen. They need to do so not just by keeping the external market and competition in perspective, but also internally managing multiple service or product lines, globally distributed teams, shareholder, multiple stakeholders’ interest, the list can go on.

Hence, the demands from a leader are hard. They are consistently pushed to manage contradictions like long term vs. short term, global vs. local, important vs urgent, etc.  Leaders have to be consistent at a value level, but when it comes to execution of the business, they need to be follow a ‘different strokes for different folks’ approach.

While leaders are called upon to wear multiple hats, we find a lot of leaders respond to situations based on how they have found success in the past – which could mean prioritizing one fire/issue over another because that worked in the past, and not being flexible at all or thinking incrementally or overcoming their own egos and paradoxes.

So, what is a paradox? A paradox is a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory, but in reality expresses a possible truth.

An HBR article on ‘And, Both’ leadership as against ‘Either, Or’ leadership makes a very interesting read, https://hbr.org/2016/05/both-and-leadership

For a leader to succeed, and be an ‘And, Both’ leader, she or he has to overcome and create a balance in some of these common paradoxes:

  • The ability to influence more when we listen, than when we speak
  • With people, the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line
  • Great leaders blossom under crisis, but the job is to prevent crisis
  • For the people, but not of the people
  • Organizing for growth or managing/breaking bureaucracy

Leaders also need to overcome their own paradoxes which are driven by their own personality. Dealing with these paradoxes effectively and in a balanced approach contributes significantly to an individual’s success. Some common individual paradoxes that I have come across are:

  • Diplomatic or Frank
  • Collaborative or authoritative
  • Pride or humility
  • Delegating and yet maintaining control
  • Data driven or intuitive

It is important to understand what your own paradoxes are and how you respond to situations that push you to behave in a particular manner. It helps in managing situations better and drive results more effectively. Finally, helps being an ‘And, Both’ leader….