Young African American male and Caucasian female executives.

Six Paradoxes of Leadership

The greatest challenge leaders face is managing a successful organization today and simultaneously adapting that organization for the future. This is true of both profitable businesses and public institutions serving stakeholders well — only by creating success in the present do you buy the right to exist in the future you’re envisioning. To amplify this challenge, I have observed six paradoxes which I think are becoming increasingly important for leaders to manage in addition. These are not the only paradoxes leaders face, but I believe they are the ones most urgent in today’s context and will remain important in the future. The paradoxes should be considered as a system; they impact each other and all need to be balanced simultaneously. To truly differentiate yourself as a leader, I believe learning how to comfortably inhabit both elements of each paradox will be critical to your success.

The six paradoxes are:

  • Tech-savvy humanist
  • Globally-minded localist
  • Strategic executor
  • Humble hero
  • Traditioned innovator
  • High-integrity politician

Tech-savvy Humanist Paradox

How do you become increasingly tech savvy and remember that organizations are run by people, for people?

In a world where disruption rules and technology is replacing the human workforce, it is crucial to discern what is best done by people versus what is best done by machines, and how the two should work together most efficiently and to deliver the greatest impact.

The paradox is that traditionally those with technical skills were not also building the skills required to understand people’s needs or how to lead them. As a result many people who are driving technological advancement aren’t equipped to consider the human implications of their work. This is also true in reverse as those who have responsibility for people haven’t always understood the impact technology will have on their business and workforce; missing critical strategic opportunities to drive into the future. The leader’s role is to steer and nurture the success of the business and, in doing so, offer a better future for their people. In today’s context, that means balancing being technically savvy with a focus on humanity.

Globally-minded Localist Paradox

How do you navigate a world that is increasingly both global and local?

During the 20th century, the establishment of global organizations required leaders to navigate cross-cultural relationships and lead a geographically distributed workforce, which they did by imposing their cultural model: Anglo-American or Leninist. Since then, the world has begun to fracture along fundamental differences in how a political economy should function which makes imposing one organizational model an ineffective method of leading globally. To compound this, many issues will be managed most effectively at the community level, which means the importance of being embedded locally and understanding the nuances of doing business in a particular locale are more important than ever.

The paradox is the need to be both deeply embedded in the local market and seamlessly connected across the globe at the same time. This requires a leader to be agnostic about belief system and market structure and to be a voracious student of the world. It requires someone to be able to recognize their biases resulting from the lens through which they view the world and to learn how to operate most effectively in any locale, without losing their integrity or compromising the success of another market in which they wish to operate. It also requires the skill of bringing the world to bear against challenges that are both local and global in scale. To be able to harness the power of the organization in its largest sense to make significant and purposeful progress in unfamiliar places. This requires both global and local connectivity, and the ability to negotiate between locales to drive collective success.

Strategic Executor Paradox

How do you execute effectively while also being highly strategic?

The mega trends … are putting multiple urgent issues on the plate of our leaders and exerting pressure on them to solve them immediately in an attempt to restore a sense of stability. The ability to execute in this environment is both harder and more crucial. However, the responsibility of a leader is also to look to the future and make decisions today that will solve the immediate problem and prepare us for the future. This requires a strategic mindset, and the ability to interrogate where the world is going. The success of any strategy is in its execution but a strategy must first be envisioned, and dynamically adjusted as the world changes while execution is being driven.

The paradox is that usually people have an inclination towards strategy or execution. The most powerful approach is to use the opportunity of the challenges of today to set up organizations for success in the future. To do that requires a leader to articulate a strategy, understand how it needs to evolve, and execute with both the immediate need and changing future in mind. Executing without strategy creates a higher probability of an even more significant crisis in the future and the need to deal with urgent matters even more intensely. However, it is also inappropriate to spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about the future and missing the need to execute now. The best leaders will find a way to take the time to be strategic, will bring the future into the present in order to solve today’s problems with tomorrow in mind, and will get it done.

Humble Hero Paradox

How do you have the confidence to act in an uncertain world and the humility to recognize when you are wrong?

Given the number of fast-changing variables in today’s world, most of our decisions are probably wrong. Upon realizing this, taking action becomes incredibly difficult, especially for those in a leadership position to whom others look for direction and security. The speed of change requires leaders who can decide and act, but who also have the humility to recognize the limits of their abilities, the courage to admit their mistakes, and who demand others to do the same.

The paradox is that more than ever our leaders feel like they need to behave like heroes — exuding confidence in these anxiety-inducing times. But having confidence is not the same as the arrogance to presume truth or unwillingness to change course when insurmountable challenges arise. Leadership in this context requires the ability to take advice from many quarters, ask for help when it’s needed, and make decisions based on a variety of inputs. Leaders need deep personal resilience to admit when they are wrong, allow others to make mistakes, and foster confidence throughout the organization to stimulate ongoing success. T

be able to make smart, timely decisions and navigate through failure are critical opposing characteristics our leaders need to possess, and, by doing so, will enable people to experience their leaders as humans.

Traditioned Innovator Paradox

How do you use the past to help direct your future success, while also creating a culture that allows innovation, failure, learning and growth?

To succeed in today’s world, innovation is a non-negotiable. Leaders need to ensure progress by creating the culture that will drive their organization into new areas, technologies, methods, products and services. At the same time, every leader needs to understand why their organization exists — what mandate is being fulfilled by their presence and what makes them successful — to guide their decisions. Leaders are facing many urgent challenges and, in addition to looking to the past to steer their growth, they also need be willing to try new things and be comfortable with failure; leading their organization to do the same.

The paradox is that it is tempting to continue to execute the things you do really well, and easy to miss the opportunities that will ensure you remain relevant. It requires the ability to respect the past and decide what needs to be brought forward into the future, while also having the courage to try new things and push new boundaries. To do this in the face of failure (since we know innovation will often fail) takes courage.

The tension heightens as the need for rapid change increases, and with the number of urgent issues that demand to be addressed simultaneously. In addition, too often innovation is considered a wholly greenfield experiment, rather than something that is incremental and builds on what already exists. It needs to be both and the best leaders will define when to preserve the past in moving to the future and when to create completely fresh.

High-integrity Politician Paradox

How do you navigate the politics of getting things to happen and retain your character?

The issues facing our world are increasingly complex and interdependent, which means that solutions depend on a much broader set of stakeholders with a variety of legitimate points of view, diverse considerations and underlying assumptions. In order to drive execution in this context, leaders are expected to accrue support, negotiate, form coalitions, anticipate counter-actions, and overcome resistance. With more parties at the table, political competence becomes more important than ever before.

The paradox is that in a deeply political environment, people can lose their integrity. Much time is spent meeting the needs of other people and managing the politics of getting plans to happen. Additionally, driving change is a constant state of being for today’s leaders, but change affects the existing balance of power and creates a scenario in which some parties feel like they are losing. In order to keep all people engaged on the optimal outcome for the organization during times of change the integrity of the leader is even more critical — people won’t follow someone they don’t trust. Work to reconcile the political requirements while maintaining integrity, because without relative consensus and integrity it is impossible to lead.

This article by Blair Sheppard, PwC’s Global Leader, Strategy and Leadership, was originally published on 11 January 2018 in his LinkedIn blog [source].

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