Leaders as Paradox Navigators

By Dave Ulrich, Wayne Brockbank | April 2, 2019

The search for the holy grail of leadership continues, attempting to find a single underlying factor that will ensure leadership effectiveness. In recent years, leaders have been encouraged to have emotional intelligence, then learning agility (or grit, resilience, perseverance). In our research, navigating paradox has become the next wave in the evolution of leadership effectiveness.

The search for the holy grail of leadership continues, attempting to find a single underlying factor that will ensure leadership effectiveness. In recent years, leaders have been encouraged to have emotional intelligence, then learning agility (or grit, resilience, perseverance). In our research, navigating paradox has become the next wave in the evolution of leadership effectiveness.

Paradoxes exist when seemingly contradictory activities operate together. We experience paradoxes in daily life as captured by the popular phrases: tough love, do more with less, oil and vinegar, sweet and sour, work/life balance, Catch 22, go slow to go fast, good and evil, and so forth. When these inherent contradictions work together, success follows. Instead of focusing on either/or, paradoxes emphasize and/also thinking.

Why paradoxes matter today: Emerging organization and leadership requirements

The logic for the increased importance of paradox comes from the evolution of the concept of organization.

Traditional views of organization, grounded in work by German sociologist Max Weber, drew insights from bureaucracies like the Catholic Church and German military. In these legacy views, organizations succeeded and survived by responding to external complexity by clear line of authority, chain of command, decision rights, spans of control, specialization and division of labor where each employee knows his role and responsibilities. The assumptions of bureaucracy have pervaded management practice through scientific management, process reengineering, and organization alignment (e.g., McKinsey 7S or organization health models). The hierarchical organization assumptions coordinate work through strategic and role clarity, process efficiency, and disciplined routines. And for decades, these organizational assumptions enabled organizations to respond to complex work settings.

But, today, the greater challenge for organizations is that the world is changing so quickly that what was right yesterday is not right today and will not be right tomorrow. In a world of rapid change, the assumptions of hierarchy (control by roles, rules, and routines) often impair organization success because of inflexibility. Organization thought leaders have sought to replace bureaucratic organizations with new organizational forms: ambidextrous, lattice, holistic, holacracy, boundary-less, etc. An organization’s success comes from its ability to adjust to change, which is often referred to as agility, flexibility, learning, transformation, revitalization, and so forth. Increasing organizational adaptability comes from navigating paradox. Navigating paradox accepts and heightens disagreements that enable organizations to change and evolve. Without the tensions that come from paradoxical thinking and debates, organizations tend to perpetuate the status quo and do not respond to change. Leaders of these organizations need to become paradox navigators to help their organizations respond to the pace of change.

Why paradox? Historical roots

The concept of paradox, which shows up in today’s management thinking, is rooted in ancient philosophy. In Eastern philosophy the yin-yang concept views the world as holistic where all phenomena are “shaped by the integration of two opposite cosmic energies, namely Yin and Yang.” Yin represents “female” energy; yang represents “male” energy; both forces operate both independently and together, shaping all universal phenomena and generating constant change. In Western thought, philosophers have also discussed the essence and value of paradox. Ancient Greeks were well aware that a paradox can take people outside their usual way of thinking. They combined the prefix para- (“beyond” or “outside of”) with the verb “dokein” (“to think”), forming “paradoxos,” an adjective meaning “contrary to expectation.” Latin speakers picked up the word and used it to create their noun “paradoxum,” which English speakers borrowed during the 1500s to create “paradox.” Søren Kierkegaard, a prominent Western philosopher in the 1800’s said, “But one must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow.” F. Scott Fitzgerald added, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

In management thinking, concepts of paradox have shown up in many terms: behavioral complexity, polarity, flexible leadership, duality, dialectic, competing values, dichotomies, competing demands, ambidexterity, and so forth. These concepts have applied to accounting, marketing, technology, strategy, and human resource literatures and practices. There is an increasing body of evidence that navigating paradox has positive implications within organizations. We highlight a few of these studies within organizations that enable us to define what it means to for a leader to be a Paradox Navigator:

  • Barry Johnson offers tools to deal with what he calls polarity management. In his work he wants to help managers shift from solving problems with simple answers through either/or thinking to manage polarities for unsolvable problems. In managing polarities, managers recognize that there are multiple “right” answers and by mapping the polarities, managers can find innovative options.
  • Professors Kim Cameron and Bob Quinn discuss the challenges associated with managing the tensions between competing values within an organization to drive organizational effectiveness. In their extensive research, they find that organizations have four competing values (collaborate, create, compete, control). As organizations manage these values and as culture and leaders turn them into behaviors, the tensions inherent in these four competing values build effectiveness. Organizations avoid slow death by the deep change that comes from working across multiple value sets. Leaders with cognitive complexity and the ability to manage across the four values are more effective.
  • Marianne Lewis offers a comprehensive review of paradox in management research and provides a guide for how managers and researchers may more effectively deal with inherent tensions. These scholars and practitioners she reviews have recognized the importance of paradox and have developed a number practical and useful guides to dealing with paradox in general.
  • Wendy Smith, a management professor, provides frameworks for leaders to manage paradox and demonstrates how managing paradox helps senior leaders be more effective. She found that successful firms deploy a dynamic decision model where paradoxes are surfaced, then managed by differentiating actions (focus on each paradox pole) and integrating actions (finding synergy across the paradoxes). Through dynamic decision making, paradoxical differences are less accepted or accommodated and more highlighted to find innovative solutions.
  • Yan Zhang, David Waldman, Yu-Lan Han, and Xiao-Bei Li (faculty from US and China) explore the personal characteristics of leaders who cope with paradox. They find that leaders who have personal skills of holistic thinking and integrated complexity are more able to manage paradoxical people practices that lead to productivity. Their insight reaffirms that navigating paradox applies at a personal level and that individuals may have more (or less) ability to do so. This work is extended to show that paradox savvy leaders who manage their personal paradoxes (sense of self and humility; maintaining control while letting go of control) are more able to manage organizational paradoxes. This work implies that HR professionals as paradox navigators have to personally model paradox so that they can bring the ideas to their organization.
  • The Center for Creative Leadership has summarized the paradox work and concluded, “Knowing how to manage paradox is a game changer. The research is clear: Organizations, leaders, teams, and individuals that manage paradox are better performers than those who do not.” They then offer tools for mapping paradoxes (and dualities) so that differences and synergies can be recognized.

Clearly, paradox has become relevant for organization and business leader success.

What is a paradox navigator?

As introduced above, a paradox is a situation or concept comprised of two opposites, whose coexistence seems impossible (e.g., yin and yang, past and future, top/down and bottom/up). If leaders are to help deliver on these paradoxical requirements, they must carefully maneuver their way forward through potentially hazardous waters. At any given moment emphasis may need to lean in one direction but then a moment later emphasis may need to lean in the other direction. Rather than charting a straight line course, paradox navigators have to maintain high level vision for where their organization is headed, then make the necessary real-time adjustments to short-term directions to avoid downfalls and optimize how to get to this final destination. In our research, we are clearly not inventing the concepts around paradox, nor offering new theoretical perspectives. We have studied paradox navigators within the HR profession, but our results have implications for leaders in general.

We measured the Paradox Navigator competency by developing a set of competency items on the survey that reflected common and important tensions that HR professionals tend to face in their work (again, note that these paradoxes would also be relevant for leaders in other roles).

  • Effectively manages the tensions between global and local business demands
  • Effectively manages the tensions between the need for change (flexibility, adaptability) and stability (standardization)
  • Effectively manages the tension between taking time to gather information and making timely decisions.
  • Effectively manages the tensions between internal and external hiring.
  • Effectively manages the tensions between individual employee needs and collective organizational goals.
  • Effectively manages the tensions between internal focus on employees and external focus on customers and investors.
  • Effectively manages the tensions between top down organizational control and bottom up employee empowerment.

What our research tells us about paradox navigators

In our study of about 4,000 HR participants (those doing self-assessment) and 28,000 associate raters, we received ratings about the extent to which the HR participant either does or is capable of navigating the above paradoxes. While the personal ability to navigate paradox has moderate statistical impact on perceived personal effectiveness, the paradox navigator is by far and away the most important personal competence in explaining business performance.

How to become a better paradox navigator

Leaders navigate paradox by creating the right organizational approach to paradox and developing the personal skills of a paradox navigator.

Organizational approaches to paradox.
Based on our experiences and research, we have identified six stages of paradox management that organizations and leaders often use. As paradox navigators, leaders should be able to assess where their organization is relative to these stages, then play the appropriate role in moving to the next level.

How does one transcend paradox in an organization?
From a practical perspective, there are some simple steps any leader can take to become more comfortable confronting this reality. We base these steps on our experience and on the academic and consulting research and practices cited above.

  1. Clarify the poles of the paradox. When paradoxes exist organizations can sometimes get trapped into arguments about which side (pole) of the paradox to choose and emphasize. Many times this occurs because decision makers have not been able to explicitly identify the paradoxes at play and articulate why both outcomes are important and how they are in tension with each other. Taking the time to clarify the seemingly opposing poles of a paradox and how they relate and interrelate to each other can provide an important first step towards navigating that paradox.
  2. Define best outcomes. Once we clarify the paradox, we can attend to the overarching criteria for success in our organization, and we can begin to explore how the opposing sides of the paradox relate to our success criteria. Doing so can help to clarify when to emphasize one or the other side of the paradox.
  3. See others’ points of view. Listen to others and try to understand how they experience the paradox in question. How does the paradox influence them and their work? What will happen to their work and outcomes if we emphasize one side more than the other? This may be done by a duality or polarity map where the alternatives are laid out with pros and cons of each. It may also be done by reverse role playing where advocates of one pole argue for the other and vice versa so that each side more fully appreciates the other’s point of view.
  4. Find common ground. Where do we agree and where do we disagree? Where do we agree to disagree? Can we agree on the conditions under which we lean towards one side of the paradox and the conditions under which we lean to the other side? In restructuring an HR group, there was a lot of quite animated debate about what work should go where (centralized vs. decentralized). We asked each of the senior HR team members to draw on a flip chart their idealized organization. When they presented to each other, they realized that they had 80% agreement. We acknowledged this. We then looked at the 20% disagreement (which was taking 80% of the discussion) and laid out options and experimented with an option for 3 months to see what would work. We then adapted and learned. Within 9 months, an acceptable governance structure was in place and being acted on.
  5. Take first steps. Once there is some common ground, begin to take small steps forward and learn as we go. This might include questions such as: What is the plan for adjustments to the plan? How will we know when we have moved too far in any given direction? Have we established enough common ground that we can embrace this paradox together as we move forward?

What individual skills make a good Paradox Navigator?

Paradox navigation is not an innate trait, but a learned set of behaviors that translate into skills. Leaders who are paradox navigators possess the knowledge, skills, and abilities proposed in Table 2.

These paradox navigation skills can be acquired or improved through training and experience. But, the first step is to recognize the importance of paradox in being an effective leader, then to assess both the stage of organization and skills of individual leaders in navigating paradox.


While rooted in old ideas and while part of everyday experience, paradox navigation may be the next agenda for effective leadership. Our research finds that while being a paradox navigator is the most critical skill for HR professionals who deliver business results. We believe that the organization and leadership skills of paradox management apply to leaders in general.

Dave has published over 30 books on leadership, organization, and human resources. These ideas have shaped how people and organizations deliver value to customers, investors, and communities. He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200 and worked in over 80 countries.  He has received numerous public recognitions and lifetime awards for his work. 

About the author

Wayne Brockbank is a Clinical Professor of Business at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and a partner emeritus at The RBL Group. His research, writing, and teaching has helped shape the development of the strategic HR management field, and he has consulted with major corporations throughout the world.  

About the author
The RBL Group

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