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5 Paradoxes of Effective Leadership

By Gloria Feldt | Posted May 19, 2023

I’m having a blast leading the new mastermind series, “Intentioning: Transform Your Dreams to Reality with the Power of Intention” live online. I love the real-time interaction, yet busy women from all over the world can participate and have the flexibility to catch up asynchronously while being part of a supportive community of women.

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“We are in a season of disruption; we are in a season of rebirth. The two have much in common.”

I wrote that in the introduction to my book Intentioning during the apex of the pandemic. I wanted to illustrate the power of such a paradox to open minds so that we can solve problems and reshape our world in ways that would never have been accepted during more “normal” times. Stasis doesn’t breed nearly as much innovation as disruption does.

That led to a deep discussion of how paradox is an inherent aspect of leadership. Leaders typically live in paradox, and have to become comfortable doing so. Solutions to complex problems are rarely cut and dried. A visionary mind can leverage competing forces into creative, novel solutions.

The dictionary definition of paradox: a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth.

Because many of the women joined the Mastermind series to gain clarity about their highest intentions for their lives and their careers, I told them they’ll need to get comfortable with paradox.

Very little is absolute, especially as we ascend into upper levels of leadership. The leader who can not only thrive in paradox but can use the creative problem-solving that paradox forces you to have is the leader who can excel at being her authentic self.

Most of the time collectively and as individuals, we are in one or both disruption and rebirth. At times like these, it’s good to remember there are always times like these and to embrace the paradox.

5 Paradoxes of Leadership

  1. People hunger both to be led and to lead. This is true of almost everyone because leadership is a tremendous responsibility. Those who accept it with attention to the ethical dimensions and their organization’s business goals can’t help wanting to learn continuously. They seek other leaders and lean on their wisdom.

  2. We want leaders to articulate a compelling vision and yet to feel we have participated in creating that vision.

  3. We generally want to be told what is expected of us, to have boundaries or a clear structure, and to have freedom within those boundaries to decide for ourselves the best course of action in our work. We neither want full autonomy nor a fully rigid structure. Malleable boundaries are paradoxically the most effective so people have freedom to achieve goals in ways they believe are most effective.

  4. We need to get personal satisfaction. Yet, in reality, we are most satisfied when working for something larger than ourselves.

  5. Those who will be most successful as leaders or at being tapped for leadership roles are inevitably those who embrace chaos and ambiguity and turn them into opportunities.

In paradox, in disruption, is where the innovation lies, where problem solving occurs most fruitfully. It’s where you grow and help others grow. It is — paradoxically — where you can ultimately find clarity.

The insider-outsider paradox of female leaders has become a superpower.

Women and other underrepresented groups have an opportunity to embrace paradox uniquely to be successful leaders.

In her book When Women Lead: What They Achieve, Why They Succeed, and How We Can Learn from Them, Julia Boorstin explains how when women become corporate leaders, they paradoxically become both insiders who are now part of the system and yet remain outsiders because they have not had the privilege of power when they come into their more powerful roles. They can see things differently than the men who have historically been the leaders. That in turn leads to greater empathy, problem solving, and innovation.

Boorstin gives the example of financial executive Sallie Krawcheck, founder of the women-focused investment advisory and platform Ellevest. Before launching Ellevest in 2016, Krawcheck had been a top executive at a series of major financial institutions, including Smith Barney, Citi, and Merrill Lynch. She was often at odds with her bosses about the needs of female investors. Her experience as an outsider/insider ultimately gave her the ability to understand gender differences in investment decisions and the earning curve of women compared to men. She saw an untapped market of women with the wherewithal to invest, including opportunities to start investing at lower levels. However, the companies were not serving them in a way that resonated. In contrast, the mostly male leaders could not envision a different market paradigm.

As one of my mentors, the late Richard Farson, author of Management of the Absurd: Paradoxes in Leadership, was fond of saying, “Nothing is as invisible as the obvious.”

So if you are aiming to be an effective leader, consider how understanding these paradoxes can help you achieve your highest intentions and, perhaps paradoxically, listen attentively to your own inner counsel.


Original Post April 17, 2023