The Leadership Paradox

When I began working in the nineties, computers were mostly used in a lab. Cultural diversity meant interacting with people from a different city or state. Fast forward three decades and a lot has changed. Hardly any decision is taken without superior data analysis. All knowledge has been comprehensively documented and available at the touch of a button. At work I interact with people from 16 nationalities, and diversity of thought and approach is actively encouraged. In an environment of such rapid and profound changes, does any of you wonder like me, “what value can I add to business today?”. Does leadership mean I have to be better at everything to justify my position? How is that even possible when compared to a generation for whom technology is native and natural? This leadership paradox, and many more, confound me.

As business leaders today, we face a complex and contradictory environment. Should I project confidence or appear vulnerable and human? Will employee empowerment lead to greater productivity or anarchy in the team? How do you manage the inevitable politics within an organization without forfeiting character?

In his book Ten Years to Midnight PwC’s Blair Sheppard identifies 6 different leadership paradoxes that executives must navigate to succeed:

1) Global minded localist – think global, be local
2) High integrity politician – navigating politics while retaining one’s character
3) Humble hero – projecting confidence with humility
4) Strategic executor – execute effectively while being a strategic thinker
5) Tech savvy humanist – tech savvy while being people-oriented
6) Traditioned innovator – respect the past for the lessons it teaches us to innovate for the future
As a leader my approach has been more intuitive than reasoned, and sometimes more reactive than proactive. When I took a moment to contemplate what worked and what didn’t, and whether there was any tangible advice that I can offer, it was difficult to convert instinct into a concrete framework. While I believe that response to a leadership paradox is highly personal, there are a few themes that do emerge.

Collaborate, Cooperate & Communicate

Business leaders are often confronted with decisions that require highly specialized technical knowledge that they may not have. We are advised to “fake it until you make it”. How authentic does that make you feel? Personally, I am rather more inclined to adopt the “Humble Hero” persona. Set up teams with differing vertical sector knowledge, cultural perspectives, and personality types to get the best synergy in problem solving. Treating business problems like a team sport requires every person to put in effort to win. It allows the team to come together with respect for the skills and creativity that each one brings to the table, ensuring optimum outcomes.

Be Consciously Centrist

At an individual level, framing the problem across different parameters by identifying the two extremes across each parameter has helped me to consciously position myself in the middle. Extreme opinions can hinder problem solving and cause dissent in teams. In such situations, a centrist approach offers the most pragmatic way ahead. Finding the middle ground benefits a wider universe of people and increases the trust in the process.

Indeed, consider the following descriptors:

a. Tough – accommodating
b. Controlling – empowering
c. Flexible – structured
d. Practical – conceptual

Think of the connecting preposition. Why should it always be “or”? Why not “but”? Maybe “and”? For instance, critical aspects of the job may need more intense monitoring. Or people with relative inexperience may appreciate more guidance. Similarly, the specialists in the team will likely flourish better when they are empowered within a framework to ensure consistency of output.

Consult and Confer

Another way of handling leadership paradoxes is to adopt the “mosaic” approach that I have borrowed from my experience as a research analyst. The mosaic theory is a style of financial research in which the analyst uses a variety of resources to determine the value of a company, stock, or other security. I find it quite helpful to take advice from many different quarters and obtain a variety of inputs which can be consolidated into a solution. The trick is to know when to stop and avoid analysis paralysis.

Many intangible aspects of relationships are indirect facilitators in dealing with paradox. While cliched, it is important to reiterate that we cannot be everything to everybody. In this regard children are our best teachers. Approaching problem solving with a childlike perspective allows us to progress quickly, surely, and confidently. This is because children make quick decisions with confidence, with limited or no arrogance, and pick themselves up quickly if they fall/fail and learn from their failures.

Checklist for Consistency

At a more complex level, we can learn to allow one dimension of a leadership paradox to help in another For example, a visionary leader can articulate the vision clearly and on measurable parameters. In this situation, providing empowerment to employees is less risky due to the consistency provided by the parameters defining that vision.

Ultimately, it’s all in the mind. Challenging situations can be reframed as a paradox. This allows seeming contradictions to peacefully coexist, inviting creative solutions with open minds. To conclude, we all need a paradox mindset to accept that conflict is an inherent part of creativity. By inhabiting the discomfort that often arises from tensions we can convert it into opportunity. Also, converting competition into collaboration changes it from a zero-sum game to a win-win situation where everyone can flourish.

2 Responses

  1. Very valid observations that present food for thought in our own personal journey of reflection, development and value-add. I have learnt over time that bringing my most authentic self to work every day, to every meeting and discussion and to every programme or project is the only lasting way for me to add value and also feel fulfilled. However, this learning has come over time, with reflection on the many occasions when I have basked in the glory of success as well as lamented on the bitter disappointment from failure. I think it takes courage to be authentic. It comes from a position of deep confidence and inner security.

  2. This is an article that is rich in personal insights – and it is all the more valuable because it marries structure/ framework with relatable examples from years of her lived leadership experience. I’ve seen it practiced, in action, day after day, by the author and that makes it all the more compelling. Thank you for putting together a platform that enables this and similar such voices to be heard – and in turn inspire more leaders to follow this example.