Some Paradoxes of Leadership


Leading is about balance.  Effective leaders must intuitively manage the many paradoxes in business.  Short vs. long-term.   Commanding vs. collaborating. Controlling vs. empowering. Individual vs. group needs.  Customer satisfaction vs. profitability. Etc.

Striking the right balance between these often opposing goals is tricky, made even more challenging when you consider the right answer in one circumstance may not be right at a different time or under slightly different situations.  It seems a little daunting doesn’t it?  It’s like playing three-dimensional chess on 4 game boards simultaneously while balancing on a unicycle.

One of my favorite new reads today is a book called Management of the Absurd, by Richard Farson. The book does a deep dive into many intriguing paradoxes of leadership.     He calls into question many beliefs about what we should focus on, but these are often based on flawed perceptions needing more unconventional thinking. Here are some of my favorites to think about:

1)      We think we want creativity or change, but we really don’t.  . .  at least, not when it impacts us.   Our current state is one in which we all derive a sense balance and a definition of who we are, how we fit, and what role we are to play.   Change, then, challenges our identity, and that does not make us comfortable at all.  What we seek is validation for our own sense of identity and personal pride.  We as leaders must learn to reframe our agenda into personalized initiatives that allow people to fulfill their lives by exercising more of what they feel they are already good at.  (Also see item 3 below.)

2)      The opposite of profound truth can also be true.   Almost all actions have intended consequences. Opposites can and usually do exist together.  Empowering others does not diminish your own authority any more than giving away information makes you know less.   Organizations need truth, and sometimes distortion.  (Aren’t tact and diplomacy needed behaviors when we feel that sparing feelings of others is the better than harming ones sometimes delicate sense of self-worth?)

3)      We want for ourselves not what we are missing, but more of what we already have.  Conventional change theorists talk a lot about creating win-win scenarios by suggesting new things that you “get” as a consequence of agreeing to my change project. But what if people aren’t looking for new things, but more of the “good” things they already think they have?

4)      Big changes are easier than small ones.   Seems counterintuitive.   A constant stream of small changes can create feelings of never-ending stress and a sense that the tide is always flowing against you.   In extreme cases such incrementalism can produce resentment. Big changes, especially those born out of crisis, are easier for people to swallow.   They believe that once the big event is past, then things will settle down into a state of normalcy and stability. Never let a good crisis go to waste.  (As for making small changes when these are self-initiated, they work.   Create a culture of celebrating what we at Xavier call MAGIS (Meaning more . . . which is the idea behind continuous improvement).

5)      Planning is a terrible way to bring about change.   In a dynamic environment, most planning is ineffective.   We plan based on looking backward at past lessons, which may not be valid in the future.  We all have blind spots.  We can overreact.  We can focus on what’s trendy.  Leading change needs to be much more organic.  Choose a direction, and start moving along your path.   Then be ready and willing to learn from what happens next and adapt quickly.   You will figure it out as you go.

6)      Every strength is a weakness.  We are training (as in performance appraisals) to think about ourselves and others in terms strengths (what we are good at) and weaknesses (a separate list of skills or attributes) at which we are not.  However, the truth is that every one of our strengths has a flip side and can lead to danger.   Courage can lead to excessive risk-taking.   Being a great visionary may lead to pushing bold change faster than your organization can absorb.  Intelligence can lead to arrogance.  The best strategy is to surround yourself with people able to speak truth to you. Combine that with your own discipline to listen carefully to them and then act in tempered ways.

7)      Effective managers are not in control.  Control is a myth.   We can control only one thing in life . . . ourselves.  (And some of us have plenty of trouble with that).   When in your life have you had more control than in the case of your own kids?   You could take away their allowance, ground them, stop their allowance, take the car away, or even physically dominate them (if you chose).   And yet our kids have this amazing ability to be their own unique selves no matter what you want.  While we do not have control, we DO have influence over things and people.   We exercise this through our leadership — through how we act.  For better or worse, what we do influences the way people around us think, feel, and act.  That is what leadership is really about.

8)      The more we communicate, the less we communicate.  Most of us live in a state of information overload.   While we THINK it is important to bring people in on everything, we all reach a saturation point where we don’t read all emails (don’t even open many of them). We tune out in meetings, and even avoid interacting with others.   Organizations are built on TRUST more than information.   When I really trust my boss, I know he or she will share with me what they feel I need to know, and I am quite ok with that.

9)      Praise does not always motivate.   The act of praising others also carries with it a subtle message that you have the ability to “pass judgment” on them.  Many people in our leadership programs have mentioned that they have experienced the praise – criticize – praise again cycle which leads us to always be listening for the “but” in any sentence.   Sure, sincere praise can have some positive impact, but the driving forces are trust and respect.

Leading takes reflection, practice, trial and error, open-mindedness and a willingness to adapt as we go forward, learning from our mistakes.   I believe good leaders are often deep thinkers to whom the paradoxes of leadership are a source not of frustration, but of excitement and positive challenge.   Think deep!

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Filed under Leading, Managing Teams

One response to “Some Paradoxes of Leadership

  1. Pingback: Identity « Rubber Tyres –> Smooth Rides

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