Leaders of paradoxes: 4 important organizational types

Human Resources

Concept of choice with crossroads spliting in two ways.jpeg

In the blog series ‘Leaders of paradoxes’ Prof. Dr. Jesse Segers explains us what the invisible tensions are to what leaders get exposed. In this first part he illustrates which 4 important organizational paradoxes can be defined.

“Organizations emerge as leaders respond to foundational questions, constructing boundaries that foster distinctions & dichotomies” (Ford & Backoff, 1988). “In creating organizations, leaders must decide what they are going to do, how they are going to do it, who is going to do it, and in what time horizon. In making these decisions paradoxical tensions inherent to the complex and adaptive nature of organizational systems surfaces” (Smith & Lewis, 2011, p.388).

Latent tensions

These latent tensions become more salient, more intensified, and more experienced by people in organizations in environments with increased plurality (i.e. multiple views in contexts of diffuse power, such as working in a network structure or organic environments), change (i.e. struggling with conflicting short & long term needs and coexisting roles & emotions) and scarcity in resources.  Taken together, more and more leaders experience organizational paradoxes today as they live less and less in simple, mechanic, stable environments (Smith & Lewis, 2011).

"Paradoxes “are interrelated elements that exist simultaneously and persist over time. Such elements seem logical when considered in isolation, but irrational, inconsistent, and absurd when juxtaposed.” (Smith & Lewis, 2011, p.386).

1. Performing paradoxes

Firstly, as a result of the plurality of internal and external stakeholders who have often differing and conflicting demands, resulting in competing strategies and goals, performing paradoxes are created. Leaders will have to define what they are trying to do, and in doing so they will define what they are not trying to do. For example: typical dilemmas here are: acting global versus local, or implementing CSR based on furthering the operational or financial strategic goals of the form (financially focused), or based on furthering moral values or some social good because of its intrinsic worth (socially focused). (Smith & Lewis, 2011; Waldman & Bowen, 2016).

2. Organizing tensions

Secondly, by defining how they are going to operate, leaders define how they are not going to operate. Doing so creates organizing tensions: competing designs and processes to achieve a desired outcome. For example: loosely-coupled versus tightly-coupled, centralized versus decentralized, and flexible versus controlling, collaboration versus competition, empowerment versus direction, routine versus change. (Smith & Lewis, 2011)

3. Belonging tensions

Thirdly, by responding to questions about who is going to do what highlights conflicting identities, roles, and values, creating belonging tensions. Tensions between the individual and the collective, as individual and groups seek both homogeneity and distinction. (Smith & Lewis, 2011). Leaders in network organizations can have for example multiple conflicting identities between being a member of the network and being on the payroll of an organization.

4. Learning tensions

Finally, as leaders consider the time horizon for their actions, they face learning tensions between today and tomorrow or between looking forward and looking backward. Between building upon, as well as destroying the past to create a future. Tensions between the nature, and pace of engaging new ideas, including tensions which are often found under the term ambidexterity: radical vs. incremental innovation, episodic vs. continuous change, exploration vs. exploitation. (Smith & Lewis, 2011)


In his next contribution Jesse will explain 4 people management paradoxes.

Do you already want to know more about this subject? In this blog post Koen Marichal looks back on the Leader Dialogue on 'Leaders of paradoxes'. For further information and a more in-depth look at this theme, please contact katrien.nuyts@ams.ac.be.