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  • December 2, 2023

WHEN THERE IS NO RIGHT ANSWER: The Highwire Art of Leading Through Paradox

This is Part 1 of a three-part series on leading through paradox.

Part 2 will elaborate on the difference between resolving a dilemma (making an either/or choice) vs navigating through paradoxes (via a both/and approach that imagines and creates alternative possibilities).

Part 3 will be a detailed walkthrough of possible ways to navigate through the paradox of operational stability while pressing for breakthrough innovation.


As an elected official of a seven-person City Council in a town of 30,000, I am part of a governing body that continually makes choices loaded with paradoxes.

For example, how best to make decisions about economic development that will bring prosperity but may also displace low-income families from their homes? Or how to increase public safety in the aftermath of a mass shooting without eroding privacy? Or how to reduce carbon emissions through a gas-powered leaf blower ban without threatening the livelihood of landscapers with families to support? And on it goes.

Likewise, corporate executives also face significantly more unprecedented paradoxes than ever before. They must seek innovative disruption of the status quo while not derailing/damaging/disturbing day-to-day operations. They must provide the conditions for global scalable solutions while honoring local needs. They must foster the unique diversity of each person while nurturing the inclusiveness of all. They must provide optimism in delivering difficult news about economic slowdowns, layoffs, and data breaches. And on it goes for them as well.

The stakes are now even greater and more fraught. Leaders today, for example, must contend with the Oppenheimer-like paradox of pursuing the full generative capabilities of AI and its potential to bring forth powerful solutions, such as a cure for cancer or reversal of climate change, while simultaneously courting the risk of civilization’s end if AI were to become autonomous. They must navigate through wars and conflicts between nations and communities when they have representatives of each one among their talent, clients, and suppliers. They must accelerate the path to carbon neutrality through clean energy while still depending on dirty energy.

A paradox is not the same as a dilemma. Dilemmas demand resolution through an either/or choice. Paradoxes demand leadership that can navigate through a both/and reality. This is why these continual paradoxes demand hyper agility and finesse.

A paradox is not the same as a dilemma. Dilemmas demand resolution through an either/or choice. Paradoxes demand leadership that can navigate through a both/and reality.

The traditional view of leadership as an endeavor to find a straightforward path toward a logical conclusion has given way to a more nuanced understanding of how to lead the way forward. Call it leading through paradox.

What Leading through Paradox Looks Like

Leading through paradox is not about finding a one-size-fits-all solution but navigating through competing tensions. Successful leaders are adept at embracing contradictions, and understanding that opposing forces can coexist and thrive together. This requires a departure from binary thinking and instead demands an embrace of ambiguity.

To do this, leading through paradox demands a bundle of leadership skills. Here are a few vital ones:

  • Stakeholder management: Leaders must balance conflicting priorities on the part of different stakeholders with a multipolarity of ideas and find ways to integrate and fuse opposing points of view rather than viewing them as mutually exclusive. Marketers want to sell no matter the cost. The finance people want to earn profits. The ESG people want to have a positive impact on society and the planet. To skillfully lead the various stakeholders through paradox requires effective communication to help convey the rationale behind the seemingly contradictory decisions, and thus foster understanding and support.
  • Ability to manage contradictions: Leaders effective at leading through paradox do this with a tolerance of ambiguity where they don’t seek to eliminate contradictions but rather manage them effectively by acknowledging that there may not be one “right” solution to a paradox and instead find ways to integrate various solutions and points of view into one. Indra Nooyi, former CEO of PepsiCo, managed the paradox of how to maintain a leading market share in sugary drinks and snacks during a time when consumer preferences were shifting toward healthier options. She did it by protecting and enhancing the systems already in place to maintain the profitability of the traditional products while leading PepsiCo’s expansion into healthier product lines via acquisitions and internal innovation.
  • Openness to differences: Leaders navigating paradox encourage diverse perspectives and involve multiple stakeholders in decisionmaking — plus go out of the way to ensure the most different and overlooked are included. Understanding the perspectives of all others is key to resolving paradoxes. It opens one to insightful empathy which enables leaders to get a better understanding of the value of different viewpoints required to open up new possibilities not imagined before. It’s how we paradoxically find common ground that can address both similar as well as differing needs.

Understanding the perspectives of others is key to resolving paradoxes.

  • Strategic Vision: A clear vision helps guide decisions in the face of paradox. It provides a framework for understanding how seemingly conflicting elements can coexist and contribute to the overall goals. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, had a strategic vision to address the paradox of short-term losses and long-term gains. Amazon initially operated at a loss as it invested in infrastructure, technology, and customer experience to become the world’s dominant digital marketplace and a hugely profitable one.
  • Collaboration. One logical conclusion to all this is that collaboration becomes the supreme objective. Paradoxically yes and no. Yes, collaboration is the prized skill because in the end, no matter how right, well-researched, and grounded in precedent each stakeholder’s position is, stakeholders with different agendas, objectives, metrics, and personalities will never fully agree on the way forward. However, a skilled leader managing the paradoxes masters the ability to get these different players to collaborate by helping them seek mutuality and common interests. But no, collaboration does not mean arriving at full agreement. It means getting to a place where all players are willing to compromise in not getting all they want, or even need, in order for things to keep moving forward constructively for all, even if the players don’t fully agree, get, or like each other.

But no, collaboration does not mean arriving at full agreement.

  • Courage: Addressing paradoxes may involve making tough decisions or challenging the status quo. Courage is necessary to navigate these uncertainties and take calculated risks. Angela Merkel, as Chancellor of Germany, displayed courage in the paradox of immigration and national identity. Her decision to welcome refugees in 2015 demonstrated a commitment to humanitarian values, despite political challenges and public opinions.

As is evident, many of these are characteristics of inclusive leaders leading diverse and inclusive teams.

Conclusion

In the ever-evolving landscape of business, leaders face myriad paradoxes that demand finesse and adaptability. Paradox leadership requires leaders to adeptly navigate the delicate interplay of opposing forces, recognizing that success often lies in the ability to maintain harmony amidst seemingly contradictory elements.

In the paradoxes, leaders discover not a conundrum to be solved but a path to be navigated, where the tensions between opposites become the driving force for innovation, growth, and sustained success.

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