“They were born to hate each other." (1) Thomas Jefferson was an American aristocrat from the agricultural state of Virginia. He was a sloppy-dressing, visionary philosopher, who gazed across mountains and oceans, and became America's first secretary of state.
Alexander Hamilton was a self-made man. A bastard and immigrant from the West Indies who dressed meticulously, thought rationally, and focused on the bottom line as the country's first secretary of treasury. George Washington knew that he and the country needed to manage the tension between these two strong personalities to accomplish the common goal of giving birth to this confederation of states. Paradox had come to America's first administration. Washington’s leadership genius was in his ability to embrace it in himself and others. How about you?
How often do your decisions involve competing priorities, contradictory demands, or conflicting stakeholders? Are you ever asked to: Get more done with less and coach/mentor team members? Hold employees accountable and increase motivation? Meet quarterly objectives and plan for long-term goals…?
“The problem, of course, is that… management is complicated and confusing. Be global and be local. Collaborate and compete. Change perpetually and maintain order. Make the numbers while nurturing your people. How is anyone supposed to reconcile all this?”
Professor Henry Mintzberg (2)
Leadership scholar Henry Mintzberg is telling us that today’s ambiguous work environment (perhaps as uncertain as America's situation was in the late 1700’s) requires that leaders at all levels manage these “paradoxical tensions” – issues that pull us in opposite directions.
A paradox is a statement that seems self-contradictory but in reality expresses a possible truth. It is derived from the Latin word paradoxum, meaning beyond belief. In times of stress, researchers tell us that leaders often focus on addressing one issue in the paradox instead of expanding their mindset to embrace both, as Washington did. (3)This tunnel vision under pressure results in these TEN errors:
1. Cutting cost without protecting strategic expenditures.
2. Reducing training in a time when employees actually have time to learn.
3. Increasing pressure to perform (e.g., productivity, sales) without assessing the negative impact of added stress.
4. Adhering to organizational policy while sacrificing the entrepreneurial spirit.
5. Meeting quarterly projections without keeping an eye on long-term growth.
6. Rewarding individual performance to the detriment of cross-functional collaboration.
7. Accelerating the pace of change while lacking the anchors of stability.
8. Pushing employees to get more done with less without engaging them.
9. Spending more time at work to the detriment of a satisfying home life
10. Mistaking broadcasting (i.e., get the message out) for communicating (i.e., ensure the message is well received).
Do any of those looks familiar to you? How often have you experienced the negative consequences of over-focusing on one side of the issue at the expense of the other during stressful times?
The essence of thinking paradoxically is, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." To be able to think paradoxically is a very rare, desirable and effective leadership skill according to OnPoint’s analysis of global leaders. (4)
So, next time you see opposites in yourself, others, or in situations, keep your mind open to the whole truth; perhaps you'll see reality.
1. James Flexner; Washington - The Indispensable Man, Little, Brown & Co., Time Warner Book Group, New York, NY, 1974, page 232.
2. Jonathan Gosling and Henry Mintzberg: The Five Minds of the Manager. Harvard Business Review, November: 54 -- 63, 2003.
3. Robert S. Kaplan and coworkers: Unconventional Wisdom in a Downturn, Harvard Business Review, December 2008, 28-31.
4. Richard Lepsinger, How Top Performing Companies Get Ahead of the Pack and Stay There, American Management Association MWorld, Summer 2007, 3 - 4.