A leadership paradox

Three tips to challenge how you think about your business

The temptation is there for all of us, but it’s easier to notice in others — “Why do they lead this organization the same old way? And why do they only see life from their myopic view?” The ability to break free from old mindsets and gain new ones is a valuable attribute — especially for leaders who find themselves thrown into paradox.

Consider the challenge when you encounter paradox and have to acknowledge and operate on two seemingly opposite principles from the list below:

Visionary    Practical
Chaos         Order
Results         Relationships
Competitive    Supportive
Detached     Sensitive
Bold        Cautious
Quick        Patient
Strong        Vulnerable
Leader        Servant
Tough        Compassionate
Generalist    Specialist
Convincing    Good listener

Can you really be both tough and compassionate? Can you effectively operate with a clear vision of your strategy while working in the day-to-day fog of complexity to achieve your goals?

Leaders must be flexible and open to new mindsets. Often a change in perspective is the only way to employ the wide array of behaviors and skills needed to lead effectively. Be willing to live in the tension — holding two seemingly opposite concepts at once. Our tendency is to want simplicity. We like to reduce things to right or wrong, good or bad, strong or weak. The reality of life says it’s just not that way. We are at once good and bad, strong and weak. In fact, even the best leaders readily admit that they have major insecurities.

How can you learn to live in the tension and embrace paradox? Here are three tips:

Try a picture-in-picture approach

My friend, Laurie Beth Jones, has a good analogy called the “picture-in-picture” approach. We must learn to keep more than one channel on the screen and be able to switch between them. For example, a leader needs to be able to expand the “vision” onto the full screen in order to develop strategy while at the same time keeping the practical details of reality in the smaller background screen, knowing she’ll need to swap pictures again to deal with the here and now.

Develop flexibility in yourself and others

Push yourself to identify old mindsets that really aren’t working. When you notice that your actions don’t seem to bring good results, consider taking a new perspective. As you get older, flexibility gets harder but it’s worth the effort. Share your growth and mentor others to do the same.

Remember the Stockdale Paradox

Our prisoner of war leader, CDR James Bond Stockdale, the senior Naval officer in the camps, knew a lot about resilience spending more than four years in solitary confinement, two years in the infamous Alcatraz camp with many rounds of torture. In his classic “Good to Great,” Jim Collins talked about his relationship and conversations with Stockdale and coined the term “Stockdale Paradox” that highlights this dynamic tension and Stockdale’s perspective on resilience:

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be,” Stockdale said.


Lee Ellis is the president of Leadership Freedom® LLC, a leadership and team development consulting and coaching company, Lee Ellis consults with Fortune 500 senior executives in the areas of hiring, team-building, human performance, and succession planning. His media appearances include interviews on CNN, CBS This Morning, C-SPAN, ABC World News, and Fox News Channel. A retired Air Force Colonel, his latest book is entitled “Engage with Honor™: Building a Culture of Courageous Accountability.”