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Leadership is a paradox – Why we need to move from an “either/or” to a “both/and” view of Leadership.

Does this sound familiar?   


“You have to provide an efficient, yet personalised level of service to clients”

“Manage the short term budget, but still deliver against long term goals”

“Take time to stop and think, yet keep up with the pace of change”

“Give your teams autonomy, yet also monitor their performance”


Are these dilemmas that defy common sense and business acumen? They can be overwhelming, difficult to understand, complex, and seemingly impossible to address.  Yet for many managers these days conflicting demands and either/or tensions are the norm, and they don’t get resolved by tackling one demand at a time, or by making a “final ” decision.


This is where the concept of Paradox theory comes in.  It’s about understanding that demands, goals and expectations are dynamic, complex and interconnected. Thriving in such an environment means we need to engage in (seemingly) contradictory behaviours.  Human beings can find paradoxes uncomfortable because they can create uncertainty and ambiguity and we naturally want a clear plan ahead.


Introducing Leadership Paradox theory.

This isn’t new, it’s been written about many times over the years, but in an increasingly complex and competitive environment, it’s gathering pace.  To start off – a paradox is two ideas that may appear contradictory but are in fact both true.  (think AND not OR).  


As parents we’re encouraged to be “cruel to be kind”, or use “tough love” – to bring up children who are balanced, knowing they are loved and cared for, but with manners, discipline and boundaries.  The same can be said for leadership.


When we apply this to leadership, we’re talking about an approach that allows:


  • control AND empowerment
  • Task focus AND relationship focus
  • competition AND collaboration


Imagine an organisation without clear direction from managers, without clear performance expectations or work standards; but with managers who are caring and compassionate.  What would happen?  It may be a happy environment to work in, but would work really get done on time and to standard?


On the other hand, imagine an organisation with clear direction from managers, clear performance expectations and work standards; but with managers who are not caring or compassionate.  Work may get done on time and to standard but people will probably lack proactiveness, initiative and care for the client/customer if they don’t feel the same from their managers.


Developing a skill set that allows us to build supportive and compassionate relationships with our teams, yet also providing direction, clarity and control is the answer.  Together they create a force much greater than the individual capabilities on their own could create because the Leader is capable of drawing on a wide range of responses, naturally and appropriately.  


Here’s an example.  If we think of a Leadership skill as being “the ability to manage rapport and empathy when managing the performance of others”.  The two leadership capabilities or traits needed here are:


  • Ensuring performance and conduct standards
  • Expressing positive feelings and affinity towards others


Consider what these two skills look like on a graph rather than opposite ends of the spectrum.

If a Leader learns how to “enforce” – ensures performance and conduct standards are met whilst ALSO being warm and empathetic; the result is Compassionate Enforcing, the tendency to enforce necessary rules with compassion. 

Without warmth and empathy, Leaders can be Harsh – good at enforcing rules without giving sufficient emphasis to building rapport or being empathetic.

Without Enforcing, Leaders can be permissive – the tendency to be warm and empathetic without sufficiently enforcing rules or or holding others accountable.

Without either of these skills Leaders can lack the ability to get other people to work to standards and time, and avoid building rapport or being empathetic – the worst of both worlds!


This is easier said than done simply because of the mindset we’ve adopted. Thankfully we know that Command and Control Leadership doesn’t work!  We know that Leaders don’t need to make all the decisions.  In fact we’re also talking more about the value of Empowerment, Compassion, Kindness – all in the context of being an engaging leader.  But we must interpret that as adding those Human traits to our leadership toolkit rather than substituting one for the other.


To lead successfully in this remote or hybrid working environment we need a new set of Leadership skills – not to throw the baby out with the bathwater – but to add into our existing toolkits.  Try seeing what a slight reframe in your belief about Leadership Skills could bring you – how about responding with flexibility under pressure and more creativity in the face of seemingly insoluble problems?  That’s a great place to start.


If you’re facing a dilemma with your Leadership Teams right now – you need to respond to changing customer expectations, market conditions and economic climates – try to reframe Leadership as a paradox.  Suddenly this can help your Leaders respond with flexibility under pressure and more creativity in the face of seemingly insoluble problems. Then developing your Managers to be paradoxical leaders may just be the solution you need.


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Rhiannon was instrumental in ensuring the platforms success spear heading our Group wide upskilling programme. Her personal commitment and willingness to confront the challenge of change was exceptional.

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Rhiannon very quickly gets to grip with the culture of an organisation and demonstrates the perfect style to build rapport with participants.

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