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7 Paradoxes Every Leader Must Master (part 1)

“The surf was your refuge, but it was also a hostile wilderness…”

– William Finnegan Barbarian Days

Like the surf, the modern leadership landscape is a paradox. According to INSEAD Emeritus Professor Paul Evans, it’s a balancing act where leaders have to “accept the challenge of navigating between opposites” .

If you’re leading in an international environment, here are three opposites you know well:

  • Short term vs. long-term goals
  • Visionary  vs. pragmatic leadership style
  • Global vs. local issues

There is no other force surrounding a leader more relevant or constant than Change. Therefore, when leading others through Change, it is critical that The Paradoxical Theory of Change is front and center of your mindset.

Before you can lead or manage your people effectively, you have to recognize the simple fact that “they can’t become something they are not but they can become more of what they already are”.



Imagine the following scenario: One of the requirements of a big Change Initiative at a successful sporting organization is to make all employees reapply and re-interview for their current job.

Here are two potential outcomes of this requirement:

  1. A good employee on your team is introverted and dislikes talking about herself and past accomplishments; moreover, she resents the Change and is offended by this stupid requirement – “a circus lion jumping through a hoop”.  Intent on not jumping through unnecessary hoops, she doesn’t reapply and loses her job, as a result.
  2. As the employee’s manager, you are aware of the resistance so you take the time to fully communicate the reasons and potential benefits of the Change. More importantly, you take the time to listen and address her concerns. Not stopping there, you encourage her to update her CV and informally role play an interview. As a result, she fulfills the requirement and keeps her job – and you keep a valuable employee!*

*Note – If you don’t have the time for this important second step, you could pair them up with someone who does (& is aware of the big picture).

It is painfully clear which is the preferred outcome of this scenario. The question then becomes how to achieve it!? Easier said than done, right?


First of all, you don’t ask them to become something they are not (outcome 1), but support them to be more of who they already are (outcome 2). Incidentally, this was a real scenario, not hypothetical.

Depending on your team and organizational culture, your paradoxes will certainly look differently than mine. In the intro to Making Sense of Change Management, Esther Cameron and Mike Green highlight “The 11 Paradoxes Of Leadership That Hang On The Wall Of Every LEGO Manager”.

Here are 7 of the paradoxes that I find most relevant to people managers circa 2016:

  1. Build a close relationship with your staff, AND keep a suitable distance.
  2. Trust your staff, AND keep an eye on what is happening.
  3. Be tolerant, AND know how you want things to function
  4. Freely express your view, AND be diplomatic.
  5. Be a visionary, AND keep your feet on the ground.
  6. Try to win consensus, AND be able to cut through the noise (i.e. make challenging decisions).
  7. Be sure of yourself, AND be humble.



Modern leadership is full of paradoxes. To be an effective leader and people manager you have to be aware of the big ones. In part 1, I’ve presented seven that I think are highly relevant for these times. However, you need to look at your specific situation and decide which of them are most relevant to you.

I’ve also shown you how The Paradoxical Theory of Change is a key first step to mastering the leadership landscape. In part 2, we will look at specific situations, outcomes and actions you can take on your path to mastering more.

If you thought of additional paradoxes, I’d love it if you shared them in a comment below with me and everyone else.

For help implementing these tips & strategies, contact me at info@tim-nash.com or go here.