With leadership, one is inevitably confronted with paradoxes that challenge the limits of familiar solutions.
The word paradox originates from the Greek words para (beyond) and doxa (belief). Examples of paradoxes faced by leaders include the paradox of continuity and change, planning and action, equality and efficiency, and between leading with certainty and doubt. In leading across boundaries, leaders are confronted with multiple paradoxes – between cultural forces of individualism and collectivism, achievement and ascription, long and short term orientation, low and high power distance. Such paradoxes can be daunting for leaders who are often trained to lead with fixed solutions and models.
Unlike distinct and solvable problems for which an either/or decision may be chosen, paradoxical situations require leaders to see situations from multiple perspectives. As Jim Collins and Jerry Porras observed, it requires leaders to reject the ‘tyranny of the OR’ and embrace the genius of the AND” – a boundary-spanning mindset as opposed to a bounded perspective. A boundary-spanning mindset views paradox, not as a problem to be resolved, but as generative force for learning and change. It accepts both ends of a paradox, even though they seem contradictory ,and seeks higher unifying principles to understand it.
The great Danish scientist Niels Bohr exemplified this mindset. A winner of the 1922 Nobel prize, Bohr has been described as a leader who has made one of the most influential advances in quantum mechanics. In a biography on Bohr, Ruth Moore describes how in a situational impasse and heated debate with his peers, Bohr proclaimed,
“How wonderful that we’ve met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making some progress!”
The process of working through paradox can help leaders overcome isolated perceptions and identify new ways of integrating different goals and perspectives.
By embracing a boundary-spanning mindset, leaders can tap into the generative potential of paradox for change.