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Navigating the Paradoxes of Leadership

Updated: Apr 7, 2023

There is a narrative that says that good leaders are consistent in their decision-making, keep their commitments and stay on message. The problem is, as much as we value consistency in leaders, we don't live in a world that rewards it — at least not in the long run.

We all know that leaders face conflicting challenges, constantly under pressure to improve their product, service, or overall organisation, depending on the challenge:

  • some CEOs respond by prioritizing one challenge over the other;

  • others seek an integrative middle ground, negotiating acceptable compromises that all stakeholders can respect.

These two approaches aim to provide a stable solution to conflicting challenges, with the implicit assumption that stability is what organizations need to thrive.

This image of leadership though is not rooted in the realities of the business. The realities of the business are not conflicting objectives which invite a calculated choice or compromise. Instead, they represent fundamental paradoxes that persist over time, as the "long term" of today becomes the "short term" of tomorrow.

The more leaders can hold paradoxes and apparently conflicting ideas and tensions, the more they are able to transform an organisation. The key to unlock such capability is to replace one OR the other (a choice or a compromise) with AND.

Here are a few examples:

  • Short term wins AND strategic goals

  • Strategic change AND psychological safety

  • Company goals AND team goals

  • Individual goals AND team goals

  • Collaboration with other people and teams AND individual performance

Too much focus on one goal triggers a demand for the other. And as the business environment and the actors in it change, stability breaks down, fueling the beginning of another cycle of change.

What paradoxes are you embracing today in your business?


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