Now is the time to think about the leadership skills essential for future success. Organisations face constantly competing demands. For instance, planning for the long term and delivering in the short term; acting globally while dealing with local needs; collaborating and competing with other companies; and to be profitable but also to be socially and environmentally oriented. As the environment continues to be uncertain, with seemingly contradictory demands – how can we prepare our leaders and managers for this reality? As everything continues to shift, and at an increasing speed, how do we need to shift our assumptions about leadership and leadership development?

What does this mean for Leadership?

Traditionally leadership has been viewed as a relatively static skills set – often captured in organisations as a competency framework. Once you’ve mastered those leadership competencies, then you’re a great leader. Those ideals of leadership are out of step and too simplistic. Organisations operate in a complex and dynamic environment, our leaders need skills to thrive in those complex and dynamic environments too.

We’ve developed leaders to manage operations, supervise teams, make decisions, prioritise investments, and manage the bottom line. These are important, but more important are capabilities such as leading through ambiguity, managing increasing complexity, being tech-savvy, managing changing customer and talent demographics, and handling national and cultural differences.

It’s time we looked at leadership in a different way, because there isn’t “one best way” for leadership anymore. As our environment is unpredictable and ambiguous, the concept of “one best way” is outdated. Instead leaders need to adapt and change as the world around them changes, and that means being able to pull on different – and sometimes seemingly contradictory skills. This is where paradoxical leadership comes in.

Paradoxical Leadership

Disruption, change and upheaval increases the complexity of decisions leaders need to make each day. Answers are not often one dimensional or are dependent on a variety of unknowns. So leaders need to be able to flex decisions or strategies quickly and make seemingly paradoxical choices on a daily basis

Taking this into consideration, Harrison Assessments Technologies (HATS) looks at leadership skills as a set of paradoxical behavioural pairs:

harrison blue grape talent


Paradoxical leadership is well documented, and from this we know that the best leaders consider both paradoxical perspectives rather than using an either/or solution.

For example, leaders need to hold others accountable but at the same time they need to maintain good rapport. If they overly focus on having rapport but don’t hold others accountable, they will not maximize performance. On the other hand, if they focus on holding others accountable without building rapport, they will demotivate others and cause employee turnover.

What should we do about this?

My suggestion is that Leadership Development should focus attention on developing that paradoxically comfortable leader. Someone who comfortably uses both paradoxical behaviours, able to dial up and dial down behaviours depending on the other people involved and the situation. The more flexibility they have in their leadership style, the more likely they are to adjust to the changing environment. Because leaders who are able to manage paradoxes create innovation, new insights and creative opportunities for businesses in the realities of a global landscape.

Long gone is the stable and predictable world, and here to stay is the volatile and uncertain world. After all, didn’t Charles Darwin say “It Is Not the Strongest of the Species that Survives But the Most Adaptable” (we’re not sure who said this but it has been attributed to Darwin).

If you’d like to develop your paradoxical leadership style, give us a call and ask about a Leadership Paradox report.