The introduction to Jay Conger’s interview got me thinking about the role paradox plays in effective leadership.
As leaders, and as people, we rarely face straightforward challenges that can be solved with one simple approach. Rather, the challenges we face are complex, multifaceted and require us to employ a variety of strategies and solutions that often depend on or even compete with each other.
Therefore, wouldn’t leaders who are comfortable with ambiguity and embrace paradoxes be more effective than those who do not?
In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins outlines his hierarchy of leadership – a standard pyramid that begins at Level 1 – the “Highly Capable Individual” – and culminates at Level 5 – the ‘Level 5 Executive”. He uses the term “Level 5″ to describe an individual who “builds enduring greatness through a paradoxical blend of personal humility and intense professional will.”
Through his research, Collins found that all great leaders were cut from the same cloth. But it wasn’t that they all had larger-than-life personalities that made them similar or successful – as popular opinion may suggest – but that they were all a study in duality; balancing two seemingly paradoxical attributes to influence change and inspire action. Collins argues that all great leaders have the ability to balance modesty with willfulness and humility with fearlessness.
The more I thought about it, the clearer it became that the need for leaders to balance two apparently contradictory elements is common. Consider situations when leaders need to balance the emotional with the rational, candor with diplomacy, logic with creativity or risk with certainty. They’re everywhere! And those who master this balancing act seem to be the leaders that stick out in our minds as great.
Take Steve Jobs for example. While I don’t condone all aspects of his leadership style, I do think there are certain lessons we can learn from his legacy. In Walter Issacson’s Harvard Business Review article, “The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs“, Jobs is celebrated for the way he connected the humanities to the sciences, creativity to technology and arts to engineering. Issacson is quick to point out that while there were greater technologists, designers and artists of our generation, Jobs was able to pull the best from each discipline in a way no one else could to fuel innovation and ultimately change consumers’ relationship with technology.
So it’s all a balancing act. Not balancing the good with the bad, but finding the inherent good in each approach, characteristic or discipline and feeling comfortable oscillating between the two.