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Paradoxical Leadership Introduction by Dr. Wendy Smith

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151021_Smith_Wendy Smith, Ph.D. Guest Faculty Provocation—Paradoxical Leadership: Understanding the Nature and Approaches to Competing Demands.

Dr. Smith, who had spoken to LILA last year in a member call, framed her keynote presentation today around the question of “What is the nature of paradoxes?” She expressed that her goal for this talk was to provide us with level-setting language to inspire reflections, push-back, and questions over the course of this conference and beyond. Her follow-up talk tomorrow will focus on potential approaches we can apply to manage and leverage the paradoxes we face in our organizations and daily lives. She suggested that, over the next year, one possible measure of success we may want to use is to see if we can shift viewing our challenges from “problematic” to a “source of possibility.”

Establishing Context

As background, Dr. Smith shared that when she had first begun her work studying paradoxes in organizations as a doctoral student at Harvard Business School, she had been repeatedly told by advisors, faculty, and organizational leaders to “not go there” and to choose a different research area. Paradoxes were seen as abstract, irrational, and ambiguous, she said, and therefore were thought to “have no place in organizations.” Broadly in our culture, she added, discussion and exploration of paradoxes tend to be taboo and relegated to two groups of people: philosophers and theologians, and “the people with tattoos who hang out at the Harvard T stop.” Thus, she has been happy to see that, over time, the examination of paradoxes has been increasingly gaining traction and exposure, with LILA being the vanguard of this work.

Reflections & Assumptions about Paradoxes from the Group

Having established the context for our discussion, Dr. Smith launched into the session by inviting our group to take a few minutes to individually reflect and visually depict a response to the following question: “What is the idea of a paradox?” As we drew our responses, she also prompted us to think about the assumptions that may be embedded within the conceptual figure(s) we were drawing and to reflect on where we think these kinds of paradoxes emerge in our roles and our organizations overall. We then shared our drawings with members at our table. Dr. Smith then reconvened the full group to ask us to share key insights or questions that arose in our small group discussions. She also mentioned (as an aside, in response to her needing to cut off the small group conversations) that often it is productive to pause a conversation mid-thought, because it inspires stronger resurgence/creativity when the conversation gets picked back up again at another time.

During this share-out, one member surfaced that when he began to draw his picture, he noticed that he drew two parts of a whole, and then began to wonder why he had focused on two competing parts, rather than multiple ones. Another member spoke about how her picture “went to the end-game” and was solution-oriented, surfacing her desire to find “the sweet spot” between identifying a dilemma and finding a solution that stakeholders can live with. Another member asked, “how do we understand the temporality of our thinking regarding any given paradox,” where we are using today’s values to inform tomorrow’s choices. Another surfaced the emotional aspect of coping with paradoxes and how we “become overly invested in particular truths and in seeing oppositional ones” in relation to the truths we feel strongly about. In response, Dr. Smith highlighted the challenge of not only changing mindsets but changing “gut-sets” too. She also underscored that the tension between “either/or” and “both/and” thinking is in itself a paradox, and that we should reflect on the place of “either/or” thinking within or in relationship to “both/and” thinking. Dr. Smith further prompted us to generate a list of the paradoxes we currently face in our organizations. Some of the major ones that were surfaced included: innovation vs. monetization, mission vs. margin, freedom vs. direction, complexity vs. simplicity, loyalty vs. expendability, CSR vs. income, learning vs. development, etc.


Defining Paradoxes: Contradiction

Dr. Smith recalled one member’s comment earlier in the session about a desire to resolve paradoxes, and she challenged the idea by stating that it may be too constraining to think of paradoxes as dynamics that can be taken to resolution. Instead, she defined paradoxes as dual in nature, as being both contradictory/ oppositional and interdependent. We tend to be more familiar with the contradictory/oppositional natures of paradoxes, she said, and tend to end our discussions of organizational change with open-ended paradoxes rather than beginning our conversations with them. She also emphasized that while we are looking at paradoxes from an organizational or leadership lens, paradoxes exist and are experienced simultaneously on multiple levels within organizations or groups of people: macro, leadership, individual, team, etc. In fact, these paradoxes are nested within each other. For instance, the three major strategic paradoxes that arise in organizations are the innovation, globalization, and obligation paradoxes.  The Innovation Paradox, which is sourced from tensions around time, is embedded in the Globalization Paradox, which is sourced from tensions around space, which is in turn embedded in the Obligation Paradox, which boils down to a tension around attention. There are four major categories of organizational paradoxes (ie. belonging, learning, performing, and organizing) intersect with and contain one another, adding to the complexity that arises when we try to manage paradoxes within our organizations.

Defining Paradoxes: Interdependence

While being contradictory in nature, paradoxes are simultaneously interdependent in nature as well, meaning that they are dynamic, processual, and persistent. She shared the example that “tall” and “short” exist on a single continuum and that one can only understand what “tall” means in relationship to how we define “short.” One could say the same of the “individual” in relationship the “community.” Therefore, paradoxes are interdependent and mutually-defining. Returning to her earlier point about paradoxes not being resolvable, Dr. Smith emphasized that paradoxes inherently consist of an ongoing relationship between two opposing dynamics that persists ad infinitum. We cannot resolve them, but we can learn to manage them and move through them over time: in other words, we can leverage them, but not definitively resolve them. They are constantly shifting and changing, dynamic and fluid. Dr. Smith compared this quality of paradoxes to the concept of the yin-yang or the Mobius strip, where one ends where the other begins.

Seeing Paradoxes

Dr. Smith showed us how she has been developing an instrument that shows how organizations score in terms of recognizing, accepting, and feeling comfortable with the paradoxes that exist within their organizations. How, she asked, can we begin accepting or feeling comfortable with paradoxes when we cannot recognize them? Dr. Smith also emphasized that not every decision or conflict that one encounters is a paradox, although our strong tendency as humans is to label any conflictual relationship, problem, or dilemma as such. Our ability to manage and leverage paradoxes hinges on our ability to learn to distinguish them from the problems or dilemmas that have reachable solutions.

In closing, Marga and Dr. Smith posed a few open-ended questions to the group to encourage ongoing reflection and conversation: if recognizing paradoxes is a skill that we must learn, how do we move our organizations to a space where we can begin having the same conversation? How can leadership skillfully move between focusing on individual thinking and changing emotions, actions, etc. to shaping cultures and structures that overcome paralysis and leverage paradoxes?

Guiding Ideas

What is the nature of paradoxical tensions?

  • Paradoxes consist of contradictory, yet interdependent elements
    • By contradictory, we mean that they are simultaneous, nested, and intensified by plurality, change, and scarcity
    • By interdependent, we mean that they are dynamic, processual, and persistent

How do we recognize paradoxes around us?

  • Paradoxes are inherent in systems
  • But made salient through
    • Environment conditions (plurality, change, scarcity)
    • Individual sense-making/cognition

Three strategic paradoxes across organizations:

  • Innovation paradoxes (time)
  • Globalization paradoxes (space)
  • Obligation paradoxes (attention)


Key Takeaway

Paradoxes can enable possibility or problems depending on how you deal with them.




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