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A 10,000 Foot View of Paradoxical Leadership by David Perkins

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During the October 2015 gathering, David Perkins offered a synthesis of the ideas he heard during the gathering.  He called this a 10,000 foot view of Paradoxical Leadership.

Defining Paradoxical Leadership

The challenge seems not in defining leadership but in paradoxes. A paradox in our sense is an opposition (For example, control vs. create) where:

  1. The poles tend to undermine one another
  2. The extremes are naïve and risky and
  3. Therefore, some kind of middle ground is attractive.

Mark Lavine emphasized how CVF gives us 4 quadrants and at a particular point in an organization’s development, say at an entrepreneurial point, it may make sense to emphasize a creative quadrant but you can’t let all other go. They have to be at least OK or business falls apart. That is an example of how the extremes can be naive and risky.

What does this contrast with? For example, simple choices. Going to this rather than another movie doesn’t undermine going to another movie. The extremes are not that risky – doesn’t have that dynamic competitive interactive quality. Nor does it make sense to take a middle path – going to ½ of one movie and ½ of another. In contrast to the situation that Wendy talked about where a plan c might very well provide a middle path that is more generative than either a or b. It is this dynamic interaction with the competitive extremes that seems to characterize what we have been talking about as paradoxes.

Wendy Smith emphasized that is partly what is out there in the world and also how we frame decisions. We can often re-frame a decision as a paradox fruitfully to get to the plan c. Or – Between two options chose the third!

In that content, whether we call them paradoxes, or generative tensions or creative tensions, paradoxical leadership becomes a kind of craft that addresses broad paradoxes that are typical or organizations with courage and insight reaching for some kind of yes and without solving them or resolving them but leveraging, reaching for some sort of dynamic situational, maybe temporary resolution that moves things along.

Valuing Paradoxical Leadership: Why bother?

One-way to view this is as a story of risk on the one hand and opportunity on the other. Lets talk about the risk side: say our leadership doesn’t pay attention to paradoxical side of things. What are the risks? For one, the dangerous extremes: over control and sacrifice creativity while others that are too much on the creativity side and others that are too slow to move. Another risk is that the overarching paradoxes are out there in the world, they are with us all the time– reaching for situational balance to avoid these risks is important and leaders are in a good position to see the big picture and reach for and engage others in reaching for appropriate situational balance. If they don’t it will be pretty unlikely that someone else way down in the organization is going to highlight that they are facing a paradox.   It is a story of risk and also of opportunity – there are a number of payoffs like enhanced creativity, innovating with fewer resources, greater feeling of control in the face of complexity and chaos. Paradoxical leadership gets rid of the gridlock that otherwise can make situations seem out of control and lead to a desire to suppress them. It gives you a greater understanding of the world’s true complexity – in some ways realizing that they are different faces of the same story.

Understanding Paradoxical Leadership

There are at least four big headlines we have been talking about over the last two days regarding paradoxes.

  1. Big principle paradoxes like control/create are a real presence in the world
  2. Leverage is situational and dynamic; we can’t solve or resolve paradoxes for today and forever; it’s an ongoing balancing act
  3. The emotional side of the story is incredibly important; paradoxical leadership and thinking is not only an analytical enterprise. It can be upsetting and perturbing to some. That is part of the dilemma and the challenge.
  4. When we reach for the both/and, we can reach for a balance and that is often good enough. But we can also reach for a synergy; something that gets us even more – it melds the opposition in a more powerful way.

As we think of paradoxical leadership we ask ourselves, what is the middle ground that is fruitful in this situation? And we might also ask, what is the higher ground that makes more of that opposition?


Fostering Paradoxical Leadership

Sharpen contrast between balance and synergy. For example, the safe creativity paradox. We want creative thinking but we want to avoid failure. Good luck on that because creativity is intrinsically risky – to push into unknown territory. But yet, in the ideal organizational world, we would love to have it. What is the middle ground around safe creativity: tolerate a little bit more failure, incentivize creativity, pick most promising projects and allow them to take risks, adopt broad policy of failing forward. These are worthwhile doing.

Contrast this with a more specific protocol that doesn’t address all the challenges of safe creativity but it addresses many of them – quick prototyping. A more specific protocol – quick prototyping gives you rapid development cycle, with low investment, you learn from it, you don’t expect it to work right off the bat but gradually you emerge to a mature prototype that can provide the basis for a new product.   This is a way of leveraging the safe creativity paradox in a way that is synergistic. We can understand the synergy better not just by thinking of the safe creativity paradox at top level – we want creativity and avoid failure but recognizing the buried goals in it. So for example, we want playfulness and things that work not just clever. The quick prototype process ramps up with low risk and resources to something that actually works in the world. Lets talk about we want to avoid failure. Lets break that down failure and recognize some of its sub goals. For instance, we want to avoid monetary costs, reputation costs, to advance in our career and not be punished for failure. Quick prototyping manages these costs. Its not no surprises, its lets have the surprises early so we can learn from them and lower costs. It positions failure in the process and leverages failure rather than treating it as an anomaly. Quick prototyping is an example of synergistic leveraging of the safe creativity paradox rather than the balance approach.


Three morals:

  1. In fostering paradoxical thinking and leadership – in reaching for the both/and, we want to ask two questions:
    • What is the fruitful balance – the middle ground
    • What is the fruitful synergy – the higher ground
  2. To get to that higher ground one way forward is liberating the goal buried by the top-level statement of the paradox.
  3. A synergistic approach may be more structurally specific more executable more powerful and more stable in an organizational context than just the middle ground.

To listen to the audio of this conversation, click here.

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