“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don't necessarily want to go, but ought to be”

- Rosalynn Carter, Former First Lady of the United States 


Incremental or radical? Structured or unstructured? People or processes? If there is one thing an innovation management theory is never in short supply of, it’s dilemmas like these: paradoxes of leadership. But what makes a good leader anyway? Is it training the "leadership muscle"? Discipline and routines? Mindset? Academics suggest it’s all about embracing contrast. Professors David Waldman and David Bowen in their research call them, paradoxes. 

In their paper “Learning to be a paradox-savvy leader”, the research duo describes four paradoxes that are increasingly relevant to leaders, the challenges in approaching them, and the traps that can keep leadership and management from conceiving and implementing a desirable resolution.

Below are some highlights from Waldman and Bowen’s work.

What Are the Four Leadership Paradoxes?

Unpredictable, unstable, non-linear, fast-paced - these are the staples of 21st-century innovation and collaboration. As the elements determining an organization’s effectiveness increase in number and type, paradoxes like maintaining control, while letting go of control and stressing continuity, while also stressing change, are becoming more relevant to leaders and their effectiveness.

According to Waldman and Bowen, paradoxes involve contradictory yet interrelated components that exist simultaneously and persist over time. They also come in two flavors.

What are leadership paradoxes?

Paradoxes Inherent to Leadership Practices

1. Maintaining a strong sense of self while simultaneously maintaining humility;

2. Maintaining control while simultaneously letting go of control;

The first set of paradoxes, those inherent to leadership, refer to how individuals relate to their context and their followers.

Think of former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart and his ability to bring others up to his level, often without them even knowing. An ultimate example of maintaining a strong sense of self while simultaneously maintaining humility. When it comes to maintaining control while letting go of control, Sharon Price John, CEO of Build-A-Bear Workshop, is another leader to look up to. While managing the turnaround of her failing toy company, Price excelled at balancing the two extremes.

Paradoxes Inherent to Organizations

3. Stressing continuity while simultaneously stressing change

4. Pursuing corporate social responsibility (CSR) for the strategic purpose of increasing profits while simultaneously pursuing CSR for morally based purposes

The second set of paradoxes (those inherent to organizations), refers to the dynamic nature of business environments. Enacting both continuity and change in the music world, composer and artist Max Richter is introducing classical music and orchestras to unlikely audiences – those suffering from digitally overloaded brains. When it comes to pursuing CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) for profits and moral values alike, the leaders at Haagen-Dazs set an example by partnering with a society for invertebrate conservation to save the honeybees. Along the same lines, Mark Constantine at LUSH Soaps is famous for his provocative campaigns against fox hunting, fracking, and international trade.

How to Resolve The Four Leadership Paradoxes?

Resolving leadership paradoxes, while difficult, is certainly not impossible. In their article, Waldman and Bowen put forward a set of measures (strategies) for each of the four.

The first paradox, for example, calls for productive narcissists. While counter-intuitive, narcissism can safely co-exist with humility to the benefit of both followers and leaders. To resolve this paradox, a leader must therefore exert his/her sense of self, while recognizing weaknesses and the value of others. In other words, to practice empowerment.

When it comes to maintaining control and simultaneously letting go of control, a paradox-savvy leader might blend a contingency approach in the near term, to let go of control as an overall, long-term strategy. A leader might also invest heavily in “raising” the next generation of innovators or simply exercise strong output control but weaker behavioral control. That is strictness on the financials and a relaxed attitude towards everything else.

The third paradox, balancing continuity and change, calls for establishing two different operating systems in the company. The first is a traditional hierarchical structure and processes related to the daily running of the business. The second is an agile network dedicated to forward-thinking strategies and planned change. To succeed, leaders must combine the philosophy of a start-up company with the resources, experience, and network of an established company. In other words, embrace ambidexterity.

Last but not least, effectively pursuing CSR for both profit and moral purposes calls for a much simpler solution: sincerity. Citing the many instances in which leaders fail to convince boards, customers, and the broader public of their intentions, Waldman and Bowen recommend not stressing moral values as a basis for CSR initiatives at all unless they are authentically felt and communicated. In other words, do not deal with the paradox in the first place.

How to embrace leadership paradoxes

Take-aways and Traps to Avoid

Paradox-savvy leadership is all about balancing opposites while still retaining the ability to function. As the examples from various industries show, a paradox-savvy leader will approach paradoxes from a both/and rather than an either/or mindset. Moreover, he or she will do so with caution knowing that every strategic move has an effect on individual followers and the greater organization.

While there is neither a universal model of paradox-savvy leadership nor a standard profile of a paradox-savvy leader, individuals who excel at balancing opposites and managing contradictions have two key traits in common:

  • Self-complexity – the ability to differentiate skills and attitudes that are relevant to various roles in the organization, while integrating them into a coherent whole (that forms the leader’s identity);
  • Emotional equanimity - the ability to control one’s emotional reactions and feelings, remaining calm, or being emotionally even and less reactive to situations.

Bringing the discussion about paradox-leadership to a close, professors Waldman and Bowen, note three traps to avoid in the process of becoming an admired and effective leader:

  • Fixating on one pole (extreme) of the paradox, while avoiding the other – e.g., pursuing CSR only to enhance profits;
  • The frequent swinging between the poles – e.g., maintaining control while letting go of control in a way that causes confusion and disruption;
  • Being stuck in the middle – i.e., paradox-savvy leadership is not only a matter of pursuing balance or middle ground. It involves optimization and the pursuit of both dimensions over time!
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