Leadership Capacity for Paradox

It might be useful to you as a leader to grow your  capacity for handling paradox. We all face paradoxical situations, people, or things with some frequency. Groups and organizations of people similarly experience paradox yet the topic of developing the capacity to handle paradox is seldom a topic of either conversation or in leadership development programs. If you pause right now to give this some thought, you could probably draw to your awareness situations, persons, or things that  combine contradictory features or qualities. Applying logic to such situations seems futile.

The tendency people have when faced individually or collectively with paradox is to shift into denial, even though the paradox is right visible to them. Somehow, the mind chooses one aspect of the paradox to accept as ‘true’ and the other side of the paradox to be ‘false’. Conclusions get formed on this basis, decisions are made, and individuals, groups, teams, and whole organizations move into action based on the decision.

Now, imagine a different, better outcome if people engaged in leadership increased their capacity to handle paradox differently. Would this be useful? Would different choices be made? Would different decisions be made? Might the individual, group, team, or whole organization benefit? As an organizational development consultant, I have witnessed that expanding one’s capacity to handle paradox is a factor in making better choices and decisions.

A significant teaching aid for reflection about paradox is a segment from a poem by the 13th century Sufi poet Mevlana JelaluddinRumi: ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.’

Another significant teaching aid for reflection about the capacity for handling paradox is a story about King Solomon and his ring. According to one version of the story, as King Solomon sat on his throne one morning, he decided that Benaiah, the captain of the Palace Guard, needed a lesson in humility. So the king summoned Benaiah and gave him a seemingly impossible mission to fulfill. “I have heard rumors of a fabulous ring,” said Solomon. “It has a unique power. When a sad man gazes upon it, he becomes happy. But when a happy man gazes upon it, he becomes sad. Find this ring and bring it to me.” Benaiah brought back a ring, much to King Solomon’s amazement. It is said that inside the ring was inscribed a Yiddish phrase: GAM ZU YAAVOR (“This too shall pass”). According to accounts about King Solomon, he believed he was teaching, and ultimately receiving, a lesson in humility. The lesson also taught the power that comes with handling paradox, summarizing both sadness and happiness initially as desired and undesired simultaneously. This is followed by the wisdom of the inscription.

In my own life, some powerful teaching lessons about expanding my capacity emerged in all aspects of my personal and professional life. In every situation, expanding my capacity required me to shift my mental, emotional, physical and spiritual attention to incorporate both/and. The most challenging times were those involving very emotional situations. I discovered that the whole person that I am developed the bigger container to handle paradox, to handle both/and, and to be able to place my focus equally on apparently contradictory aspects without my mind negating the existence of one of the aspects (denial). Some of my personal teaching examples included:

~in my role as a mother of teenagers, I loved them wanting to keep them close and simultaneously I loved them wanting to let them be independent of me

~in my role as a wife when my beloved partner had a series of brain hemorrhages, I was overwhelmed by my angry  especially at God, that the situation  was as it was and I was simultaneously overwhelmed by gratitude to God that my partner survived when the odds were said to be heavily against survival

~in my role as a senior leader (CEO), I devolved authority and responsibility for all functionality of our organization throughout the organization so that authority was placed alongside responsibility, and I simultaneously was held accountable by the Board of Directors and the public for the performance of the organization

Hopefully I have stimulated your interest in pursuing your own capacity to handle paradox, thereby shifting out of a pattern that likely includes denial of what is in front of you. Can you imagine the benefits to leadership, whether of your own life or for the organization you are leading, if you have increased capacity with paradox? Please let me know if you found this useful.

If you wish to participate in a leadership development learning intensive with me, there is still time to join us in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada from September 21-25 for Extraordinary Leadership for leading in a culture requiring agility, flexibility, and functionality in a performance environment of constant change. To register go to www.genuinecontactway.com/events and after reading the workshop descriptions, scroll down to the Halifax event.

Birgitt Williams
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Birgitt Williams is an international management and organizational solutions consultant, author, meeting facilitator, teacher, keynote speaker and executive coach. Her business focus is to create inspiring work environments that are highly effective in achieving their purpose and fulfilling their vision.