Connect People • Strengthen Leaders • Embrace the Future


Navigating Leadership Paradox

March 30, 2012 by Jonathan Gilburg

We have worked with several clients recently and walked away with an ironic understanding: one of the biggest challenges leaders face right now is how to navigate paradox.  There are many examples, but here are a few that pertain to leaders meeting the needs of their people and their position:

  • People want a clear vision and direction, yet they want autonomy to do what they think is most important
  • There is a need for greater risk taking and experimentation in environments that have no tolerance for failure
  • There is a growing expectation and need for greater collaboration both internally and externally, requiring more time and greater levels of buy-in among stakeholders, yet there is still the expectation that leaders make quick decisions and provide direction within tight timeframes and deadlines
  • Budget and resource stresses are slamming head long into increased expectations of productivity; in government, public resources are on a steep decline while public expectations of service are higher than ever
  • In our efforts to solve big challenges we are torn between doing small, easily actionable tasks to get things moving versus embarking on larger, more systemic initiatives that take longer and require more time, resources and stakeholder buy in

Paradox, in and of itself, can be cause for anxiety.  We tend to crave a clear sense of order and solid understanding of the world around us, and our role in it.  Perhaps it has always been a hallmark of effective leadership that one navigates paradox to accomplish goals.  But our current era is presenting highly complex paradoxical challenges to all of us, and leaders are in the unenviable spot of balancing and negotiating these tensions.

There is another, very human component, which elevates the difficulty-scale of “solving” these complex, paradoxical challenges—people are having strong emotional reactions and demonstrating counter-productive behaviors as they grapple with an uncertain and complex reality. For example, we observe people experiencing:

  • Fear and anxiety
  • Distrust and cynicism towards institutions and leaders in general
  • Higher levels of inter-personal conflict with peers
  • Overall decrease in morale and camaraderie

Navigating Paradox is about exploring the grey area – not the clear, certain black and white of either extreme. Its about discovering something in between, maybe doing “a little of this, a little of that.” It requires experimentation and some kind of collective unity for trying something new. And therein lies the rub. The obvious challenge for leaders is that they need enough people to begin to align around trying a new way of working to tip the scale.  They need more people to change their current behavior/thinking and embrace a new mode.  They need people to cooperate, to work together. How do you get people to do this? To try new things? To change?

The paradoxes we face are hinged on our ability to cooperate. Yet, people are often entrenched in their silos of subject matter expertise or oversight authority and frequently resist working more cooperatively with those outside their unit of influence. How does a leader change this dynamic?

The answer isn’t easy, but there is one. As humans, we are hard wired to cooperate, particularly when challenges are greater than what any one of us can address alone. But it requires pausing— no actually halting—the treadmill of “the way its always been” long enough to let the dilemma sink in, to let our minds embrace the whole picture, not just our small perspective; to acknowledge the futility of doing the same thing again and again, hoping, praying for different results; to see the paradox that surrounds us. Can any one of us really solve these issues alone? Can our leader? Really?

We believe leaders have an important role in helping others to navigate paradox, one that may require some personal shifts and possibly a few courageous acts. Yet leaders can take heart that they have the human capacity to bond in the face of adversity on their side. Below are some steps leaders can take that we’ve seen produce valuable results:  

  • Embrace and accept the reality of paradox: as a leader I cannot do all things, I am torn and do not have a clear, easy solution to implement
  • Invite others into the task of grappling with the paradox collectively: once I take off the yoke of believing that I need to have the solution, the next step is to ask others to help me think about it
  • Manage the process: when I invite people to think with me about a situation, I need to focus on having a good process with enough structure to manage chaos, and include all voices; where the right questions get asked and answered by all; where ideas get thrown around and recorded vs. lost in the ether.  I am responsible for creating engaging environments where people feel safe and respected enough to be honest with others and with me.  I cannot control or dictate what they will say, but I can offer ways for them to say it to reduce friction and increase relational strength
  • Make meaning of the information: I’ve asked the questions, I’ve gotten the perspectives of others, now I have to synthesize and make meaning of what I’ve heard (I might have to invite others to help me with this, as well as manage the process… see above)
  • Act where you can, empower what you can: if I learn about things that I have the control and authority to implement and it aligns with what I want, then do it.  If I see places where others need to be more empowered to act, then grant them permission to do what they can
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate: I need to: reiterate what is important, what is commonly shared, what is happening, what needs to happen, who is doing what, what we are learning from our efforts (good and bad), what else we can be doing, what is our priority, what’s happening next, what role can you play, what is needed now, etc. And I do this regularly, transparently, clearly, redundantly.
  • Continue to engage: it would be nice if we could get away with a one time “engagement event” that solved all of our problems, but the reality of our time and the challenges we face is that this process is iterative and looks more like a spiral than a line

If all of this seems cumbersome, time and resource intensive, murky, etc., you’re right, it is.  But what other choices do we have?  How much are we spending or losing by holding the course with our current approaches?  We are human, after all — what else can we do? 

As a leadership business dedicated to helping leaders and people embrace a more hopeful future, we see no other path.  It is our deep passion and intention to make this "collaborative path" less murky, less cumbersome, and as efficient as possible.  Our aim is to demystify working in this realm of paradox, and make it more accessible for leaders and influencers at every level so you can:

“Start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can.” (Arthur Ashe)



Click here to see an example of an open enrollment learning program we are running for Forest Service Leaders that exemplifies our commitment.  We can do this and things like this for anyone who is grappling with paradox.  Contact us to learn more.