Friday, February 20, 2009

How Leaders Manage Paradox - The Top Ten Tips

Stretchj0402588 How would you describe the best leader you've ever known; someone you've actually seen in action? Professor Quinn asked 295 part-time MBA students to answer this question by completing his "competing values assessment." (1) He found that less than 5% (i.e., only 15 leaders) could be categorized as “masters.” His analysis showed that the best leaders take on paradoxical roles, such as mentor and director, innovator and coordinator, facilitator and producer… These masters are effective because they maintain the creative tension among these competing roles. Quinn concluded that, "perhaps effectiveness is the result of maintaining a creative tension between contrasting demands." (This is one of the reasons leaders find the eXpansive Leadership Model so effective.)

Perhaps embracing paradox is what Gardner Kent was thinking when he came up with a strategy to compete with Greyhound and Gray Rabbit bus lines. In the book The Paradox Process - Creative Business Solutions... Where You Least Expect to Find Them, author Derm Barrett tells the story how Kent's bus line, called the Green Tortoise was having difficulty competing until Kent started thinking in opposites. Instead of competing on speed with his competitors, Kent decided to add extra days and make their trips more fun. These “fun” trips led to an entire new market and profit center. (2)

Professor Conlin and his colleagues also confirmed the importance of contrarian thinking. They studied 20 British string quartets and discovered that the most successful groups recognized and managed paradoxes in their work. (3) Professor Beech found what works for musicians also applies to managers when he studied 400 middle managers in the United Kingdom. He concluded that raising awareness of the tensions leaders feel at work enhanced their ability to manage them. (4)

Most of us were raised with an either/or mindset. There was one answer in the back of the book when we went to school, we were taught that leaders are paid to make tough decisions, and we learned early in our careers to select the answer to solve the problem. However, it also became obvious early on, that things are not always black and white. The research is now telling us that the most effective leaders supplement their traditional either/or approach to problem solving with both/and, paradoxical thinking. They learn how to manage the tension between competing demands from diverse stakeholders. Here are the top ten tips to help you eXpand your commanding style through paradoxical thinking (5):

1. What you see is not all there is. Understand that how you perceive your business challenge and environment at the present moment is not reality. Your reality is filtered through your limited mental model -- your narrow and biased view of the world. Pretend you're on the outside of a house looking through one window into one room. Don't assume you know what is going on throughout the room, much less the entire house.

2. A closed mind is a wonderful thing to lose. Welcome conflicting models, styles, and approaches. Do not fear them. Effective leaders like George Washington, invite contrary thinking, views, and opinions.

3. There are better ways. Leaders who embrace contrarian thinking are ready to conduct experiments to test new ways of solving problems and addressing issues. They know that the answer is somewhere in the house if they can just view the right room from the proper angle.

4. From the abstract to the concrete. Expansive leaders are not dreamers, disconnected from reality. They are thinkers giving birth to a new model of reality, as Kent did with Green Tortoise bus line.

5. Appreciate complexity. In the search for opposites, you risk getting lost in a convoluted maze of complexity. Messiness doesn't frighten the opposable mind. It knows it will wade through the muck in time.

6. Give it time. Leaders who embrace paradoxical thinking understand that it takes time to work through a paradoxical issue. When they’re under pressure, they pause. They recognize that it is better to respond to difficult issues than react to them. They seldom rush to judgment.

7. Practice shifting gears. If you want to stretch your mindset, change the rhythm of your work. Spend time thinking about major innovative growth strategies and then quickly transition to focusing on managing operations. Go from a motivating team meeting to a one-on-one counseling session with an underperformer. Fast transition activities teach the mind agility. In nature, sports and leadership, agility is a highly prized ability.

8. Support the opposition. When your top management makes a final decision that you disagree with, support it wholeheartedly. Don't let your team know that you do not agree with the decision. Become a member of the loyal opposition.

9. Adopt the beginners mind. Zen teacher Suzuki wrote that, "in the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few." Improve your paradoxical thinking by spending four or five minutes every day pretending you don't know anything about what you're doing. Assume that your window is foggy. How can you see through other windows? Who might have different perceptions? What other ways are there to discover what's going on inside? Where might you go for more info?

10. Leverage your weakness. People do best what they enjoy most. That's the reason we should spend the majority of our time working in those areas that access our strengths. However, just as a bodybuilder who pumps iron but refuses to stretch becomes inflexible, leaders who overuse their strengths become narrow minded. To expand your thinking through paradox, leverage your weakness. Spend 20 to 30 minutes every day working on your relative weakness. If you're a strong rational leader, how could you stretch your visionary leadership style? If empowering is your strength, how might you work on your commanding style? You get the idea. Stretching your comfort zone leads to adaptability, flexibility and agility.

George Washington was a master of paradox. He longed to be seen as a great leader and reluctantly accepted his appointment to lead the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He was ambitious and needed to be persuaded to accept a second term as president of the United States. He was a commanding leader who shot deserters and a compassionate person who wept at human tragedy. He was even strong enough to doubt. How about you?

Keep eXpanding,


1. Robert Quinn; Beyond Rational Management - Mastering the Paradoxes in Competing Demands of High Performance, Josie-Bass Inc., San Francisco, CA, 1988, page 91.

2. Derm Barrett; The Paradox Process - Creative Business Solutions... Where You Least Expect to Find Them, AMACOM, New York, New York, 1998, page 18.

3. Conlon, D; The Dynamics of Intense Work Groups: A Study of British String Quartets, Administrative Science Quarterly, June, 1991.

4. Beech, Nic; Contrary prescriptions: Recognizing Good Practice Tensions in Management, Organization Studies, January 2003, 1 -- 28.

5. Roger Martin; The Opposable Mind - How Successful Leaders Win through Integrative Thinking, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA, 2007.


Debashish Bramha said...

Dear Sir,
Very interesting post, I was also thinking in the similar line, please read my blog and the post about the Game The First Boss has to Play with the new recruits.

Your blog is very interesting, I keep a watch on it,can i keep your blog in my blog roll.

If you have any additional points please do it , it will be kind gesture .

With Warm Regards,

Dave Jensen, Leadership Expert said...

Hi Debashish,

Thank you for your comments. Yes, of course you may keep my blog in your blog roll.

In reading your blog (, I definitely agree with the importance of the first boss. In addition, most studies confirm what you stated when you said "people don't quit their job, they quit their supervisor."

Keep up the great blogging,

Eshan said...

A good leader has an immaculate character. It is of most extreme significance that a leader is reliable to lead others. Thanks for share with us!!!