Leadership paradoxes

David Sullivan, Chair, CMI Southern Region, writes

I recently attended the excellent CMI South West Region hosted ‘Leading Edge’ Event in the brand new University of the West of England (UWE) Business Centre in Bristol. The event covered a number of leadership and management topics using a programme of key speakers and workshops.

One of the workshops was entitled ‘Leadership Paradoxes: Rethinking leadership in an uncertain world’ and was hosted by  management writer Morgen Witzel (pictured right). He holds that ‘most of our current business models and methods are built around linear thinking. They overlook or ignore the problem of paradox, the notion that things can be both true and not true at the same time.’ ‘Learning to live with paradox – and even more, using paradox as a source of strength and inspiration – is a critical skill’, according to Witzel, who teaches regularly at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute.

Paradox: ‘A seemingly absurd or contradictory statement or proposition which when investigated may prove to be well founded or true’ (Oxford Dictionary).

Witzel suggests that the first paradox is leadership itself! It seems that few people, when asked, actually want to be led. But most people accept that there is a need for leaders! To be led followers accept a certain loss of autonomy and control – at least at within certain limits. Your boss may have control of the software you use at work but we wouldn’t be happy if that was expected at home as well? However, followers will only accept that loss of control until such time as the leader meets the followers needs and wants. History has plenty of examples of leaders being dropped like hot potatoes once they fall out of favour.

A paradox is not, however, a puzzle to be solved or a problem to be got around it just is! (M Witzel, ref 1 below). There are no courses, books, or YouTube videos that will help you find a solution! The dictionary meaning used above might let you think there is a possibility of an answer (it uses ‘seemingly’ and ‘may’) but – ‘a real paradox IS contradictory and IS true’ (R Bolden, ref 2 below). If we can’t solve the paradox how can we live with it?

Consider, your followers or your team are only letting you lead them because they think that you’ll help them achieve their personal goals and if they change their minds; you’re toast! Do you know what your followers want? Is it just a job and the money that goes with it, is it security and long-term prospects, personal development, or is it a purpose and a chance to make a difference? Shouldn’t you try to find out?

Living with this paradox suggests that leadership is a partnership or relationship between the leader and the followers not just an exchange/transaction of labour for cash or a matter of waiting to be told what to do but jointly working to achieve their respective goals together. ‘Leadership, then, is not something you do to people, or for them; but something you do with them’ (1).

(1) M Witzel, The First Paradox of Leadership is – Leadership!, Leadership Paradoxes, Rethinking Leadership in an Uncertain World, Routledge, 2016.

(2) R Bolden, Paradoxes of Perspective, Leadership Paradoxes, Rethinking Leadership in an Uncertain World, Routledge, 2016.

Photo credit: Morgan Witzel photography has been provided for use in this article, courtest of Morgan Witzel via the CMI.

Further reading

Board member Jo Strain shares some video resources which can support CPD in this area. These resources are available free via Management Direct to CMI members as part of their professional subscription.

Video: What is EQ?

EQ is Emotional Intelligence, the ability to 1) recognise yourself — your strengths, weaknesses, moods, etc.; 2) read situations and other people, and 3) respond appropriately. EQ isn’t taught in school and it gets harder as we ascend the career ladder.

Video: The Five Attributes of emotional intelligence

Intelligence, toughness, determination, and vision are not enough for today’s leaders. Neither are IQ and technical skills. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is also required: self awareness, self regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill. EQ can be learned.

e-modules: Decoding the message

The roles of both the sender and the receiver in the communication process is examined. Exercises help you become a more effective listener. These include a self assessment based upon Goleman’s behaviours of effective listening.

Video: Lead with your weakness

Successful leaders rely less on their title and more on being a source of support. Being authoritative is justified only in a crisis. Leaders of the future will acknowledge their weakness and look to others for support. In the future everyone will rate everyone else.

e-book: How the best leaders lead

The art and science of business leadership is broken down into seven basic and fundamental responsibilities that leaders need to master to get the most out of themselves and others. The seven key responsibilities:setting and achieving goals, fostering innovation, problem solving and decision making, setting priorities, setting high standards and leading by example, inspiring and motivating others, performing and achieving results are all discussed in separate chapters. Insights into the thinking and action skills used by top executives and company owners are shared to enable readers to improve their leadership skills and confront the difficult challenges and obstacles presented by leadership.

More on the Leading Edge event