Leaders of paradoxes

Human Resources

Leader dialogue.jpgTension, dilemmas, choices, conflicts, polarization... increasingly, organizational leaders find that their world is characterized by unsolvable, conflicting demands and expectations. This quickly became clear at our third Leader Dialogue. “I have to be able to adjust our course day by day, while at the same time taking a long-term view.” “I have to help build the future on a European level and fight for some continuity at local level.” “I have an organization that needs to learn how to act commercially, but that’s unknown territory for my people.” “I see a lot of good social experiments, but the system seems to be more rigid than ever.”

The theme of the dialogue was paradoxes: themes that are clear and rational when viewed separately and both of which have legitimacy, but which apparently cannot go together. Jesse Segers gathered the most recent knowledge in this area and got organizational leaders to think about the paradoxes they live with and how they deal with them. Clear themes emerged. Playing games on many levels, diffusing power structures, the need for drastic change and the lack of recourse give an increasing feeling of ‘impossible, but it needs to happen’.



The most striking paradoxes were those between exploration and exploitation, between radical and incremental innovation, between a standardized and individual approach by employees, between keeping your distance and being close, and finally between competition and collaboration. These are striking in the sense of being pressingly present and unsolvable. Trying to reconcile these seems impossible and, day in day out, becomes painful. You cannot resolve paradoxes with the traditional arsenal of management practices and still they have to have their place somewhere within the existing management structures and processes.  

“Are we leaders of paradoxes or are we led by paradoxes?” a participant asked themselves and the group. Thinking about that question brought the insight that the last thing organizational leaders today should do is try and solve the paradoxes. “Things are no longer coherent in the way they used to be, we cannot go backwards. We have to be able to let opposites exist alongside each other.” Denying the paradox is a sign of weakness, and usually done because there’s a desire for homogeneity and it enforces the inert mechanisms of an organization.


Walk the talk

The way forward is to embrace the paradoxes. Value them. Name and frame the paradoxes for yourself, and especially for your team and employees. And develop a dynamic capacity as an organization. This involves emotional work as well: “It won’t be long until a researcher demonstrates a link between mindfulness and the capacity of a person and organization to deal with paradoxes,” Segers predicted.

In our Leader Dialogue, we sent the participants out in pairs to go for a walk and think about their paradox, walking at the edge of the Scheldt, with the hectic city in the background. Their capacity to live with paradoxes was strengthened. “I’m going to take time to name the paradoxes in my team, give information, so I’m not alone.” “I am rediscovering the importance of a sounding board. Being able to talk about the paradoxes. That alone creates space to think and move.” “My feeling that I don’t have to choose and can keep moving has been strengthened and that gives a sense of freedom. I should be clearer to my staff about why I do A and B and why it often seems random.” “I don’t have to solve the paradoxes for my staff, but invest in the capacity of employees to live with them.” “The walk was really enjoyable, and I felt a little less lonely in my task as a leader of paradoxes.”

The Leader Dialogues are an initiative by the TFLI Connect program. For more information, contact koen.marichal@ams.ac.be. For further information and a more in-depth look at the “Leaders of Paradoxes” theme, please contact katrien.nuyts@ams.ac.be.