A Navigational Guide To 6 Paradoxes of Leadership

Leaders have to “be” many things, and a lot of them are seemingly contradictory—paradoxes that hover over our daily decisions and interactions.

How we deal with these paradoxes can be the difference between good and great.

There are six in particular that need some keen navigation:

1. Process vs. Innovation.

On the surface this looks more like a huge battle: the free-thinking forces that love chaos and drive change, against the system-driven processors who thrive on order and repetition. In reality, under great leadership innovation and process work in tandem, where the more solid the processes, the more time is saved for great innovation.

2. Openness vs. Secrecy.

There’s a big push for transparency these days in the workplace; where leaders need to put themselves “out there” as more human and open. That’s certainly necessary, and I’m a big believer, but I also know there is a very fine line here, and oftentimes a modicum of discretion can make a big difference.  I’d ask yourself the question, “Do they need to know this to help them do their job to the best of their abilities, and find fulfillment in doing that job?”

3. Risk-Taking vs. Conservatism.

Leaders have to stand on both sides of this fence, because every situation is different, and the stakes on either side are very high. Take a foolish risk, you can bring down the company. Stand still too long, and everyone passes you by.  The key here is one word: facts. The more information and facts you know, the better you can face this paradox. I realize many decisions can’t be made with 100 percent of the necessary information on hand, but with a focused discipline of good data collection and fact-finding, you stand a much better chance of getting it right more often.

4. Hubris vs. Humility.

This is where leadership has to (almost literally) wear two faces; there’s no question that a confident leader is important, because they set the tone for the entire organization they lead. On the other hand, showing humility once again emphasizes the human side of the equation, and lets everyone know it’s not all about you. This balancing act requires nothing more than good old common sense (i.e., if you messed up, you fess up—people will see right through it if you blame somebody else), and a keen awareness of the “pulse” of those you lead.

5. Talking vs. Listening.

I look at this like a ratio: If I’m talking more than 50 percent of the time in any meeting or one-on-one discussion, I’m not doing enough listening. But, there HAS to be balance here. We’ve been told so many times that we need to “Be a good listener. Yes, we do. On the other hand, leaders must show the way, they must teach, they must bring new perspectives to the table and they must inspire. And that does require speaking.

6. Accountability vs. Leniency.

Are there occasions where you should give people another chance even though by every objective accountability measurement they should be let go? Yes. There are intangibles. There is context. There are extenuating circumstances. Accountability is paramount, no question, and in most cases the lines you draw should be solid ones. But sometimes compassion and foresight need to come into the equation. When it comes to people, thinking before acting is a winning strategy.  

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Terry Starbucker St. Marie
I'm a Writer, Husband, Entrepreneur, and Startup Investor, who loves to help companies with leadership and biz execution. Also co-founder of @sobcon.

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