The Need for Paradoxical Leadership

By: Tim Elmore

I had an epiphany a few years ago while sitting in the green room right before I spoke at a conference.  There were sixteen CEOs in the room, and I decided to turn the moment into an instant focus group. I asked these men and women if they believed that leading a team today is harder than it was when they first learned to lead. Everyone in the room, to the person, said, “Absolutely!” One of them replied, “110%!” 

I countered by saying, “You do know that’s an odd response, don’t you? It would make sense to assume leading was harder when we were younger and didn’t know as much about leadership.” But, alas, they stuck to their guns. My hunch was right.

These leaders aren’t the only ones who feel this way. The data reveals that the times in which we lead have moved from complicated to complex. We face not only difficult challenges but evolving ones. The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t make things any easier. Organizations now face a revolving door of both employees and executives. Two decades into the 21st century, thousands of leaders left their jobs, a decision made either by them or their board. More than 1,000 CEOs stepped down during the first three quarters of 2019, according to a report by the staffing firm Challenger, Gray, & Christmas. Fortune magazine featured an article last year called, “The Great CEO Exodus of 2020.” Dozens and dozens of Fortune 500 leaders resigned in the first quarter of the year, including Disney, MGM, IBM, Hulu, T-Mobile, Nestle, UberEats, and LinkedIn.

Many felt like it’s just not worth it anymore. 

When a leader doesn’t step down in tough times, often team members do. Inc. magazine featured an article called, “The Great Resignation is Here—And It Is Real.” According to the U.S. Department of Labor, during the months of April, May, and June 2021, a total of 11.5 million workers quit their jobs. Recent studies indicate that it’s likely not over. A survey of over 30,000 workers conducted by Microsoft found that over half, 54 percent, are considering quitting. Gallup found that 48 percent of employees are actively searching for new opportunities

What’s up with this?

The Role of Principles and Paradoxes

Because of these volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous times, trust is hard to come by. People offer it sparingly and leaders can’t assume they automatically have it because they wear the “badge.” Trust must be earned and I believe it’s earned in two ways. As I lead my team, at Growing Leaders, and as I observe uncommon leaders in a variety of industries, I’ve concluded we must employ these two tools:

1. Timeless Principles

These guide the decisions we make each day.

2. Timely Paradoxes

These guide the interactions we have each day.

Timeless principles are values-based beliefs you can take to the bank, anytime, anywhere. When we embrace them, they act as a compass showing us true north, guiding every big choice we make and governing every strategic initiative we take. Principle-centered leadership is evergreen and serves teams well, providing a sense of security, clarity, and stability. 

Timely paradoxes have also been useful to leaders throughout history, but the need for them has only increased today. Leaders who practice them are savvy; they spot nuances in words and behaviors; they “read the air” before they lead their people. A handful of the most important paradoxes today are:

  • Uncommon leaders need to be both confident…and humble.
  • Uncommon leaders leverage both their vision…and their blind spots.
  • Uncommon leaders must be both stubborn…and open-minded.
  • Uncommon leaders are both deeply personal…and inherently collective.

Each one of these paradoxes represent skills in social and emotional intelligence. They seem like contradictory traits, but with a little reflection, we see the value in leaders who model them based on their situation.

Lt. Colonel Chris Hughes served in Iraq and oversaw the distribution of food and blankets for displaced Iraqis several years ago. He decided the best place to do so was the local mosque near where he was stationed. He and the cleric agreed on a plan. As his troop marched down the street with a rifle on one shoulder and a package in the other, however, you can imagine what this looked like to locals. They assumed Hughes and his soldiers planned to bomb their place of worship. When the soldiers reached the mosque, it was surrounded by angry Iraqi people, with rocks and sticks, yelling and ready for a street fight. This is when Hughes’ social intelligence kicked in. He ordered his troops to stop. Then, he told them to set their package down and to take a knee. He then ordered them to point their guns toward the ground. Finally, he told them to look up at the faces of the people and to smile. One by one, the Iraqis dropped their rocks and sticks and smile back. This gave Hughes enough time to find a soldier who spoke the local dialect and explain their intentions.

Confidence and humility. Disaster averted.

Now that information is a commodity, available anywhere upon a search, informed leaders are no longer rare. What is rare is a leader who is socially and emotionally intelligent and who practices paradoxes with their teams. Make sense? If you’d like to go deeper, I invite you to pre-order the new book, Eight Paradoxes of Great Leadership. When you preorder, we’ll send you both the book and a ten-video course you can watch with your team. CLICK HERE to pre-order now.

The Need for Paradoxical Leadership