Breaking the Behavioral Paradox in Leadership: 3 Tactics

The temptation is there for all us, but it’s easier to notice in the behaviors and decisions of 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. And how does our natural behavior play a part?   

My Breaking Free Moment

Occasionally, I’ve been a co-facilitator for an event, and I almost always learn a lot from the experience. One of my fellow consultants, Robin Gerald, opened up my world with a simple graphic—showing how our mindsets drive our attitudes, choices, actions, and behaviors—sometimes for the better and sometimes for negative outcomes:

Robin’s simple explanation was a gift for a lifetime to help me break free from unproductive mindsets or expand an old worldview to see things differently. Recently I’ve used it to explain the importance of paradoxical thinking on leadership.

 Leaders must operate in Paradox

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

          This     and       This

            • 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?

Living in the Tension of Change and Growth

Leaders must be flexible and open to new mindsets. Challenge your mindsets. Often a change in perspective is the only way to employ the wide array of behaviors and skills needed to lead effectively.

We all operate with hard-wired natural behaviors that must also be challenged to see things like your team members who have opposite behaviors. We use the Leadership Behavior DNA assessment everyday with teams for this purpose.

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? Three tips –

  1. 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 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.

  1. Develop flexibility in yourself and others.

Push yourself to identify old mindsets that really aren’t working. When 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.

  1. Remember the Stockdale Paradox.

Leaders need resilience in tough times. Our POW 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. From those insights and the quote below Collins 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.” [Tweet This]

Stockdale’s life demonstrated that resilience starts with a mindset of both. Operating with faith and optimism yet digging into the nasty, painful realities of life—even stinky rotten fish if that’s what it takes to survive. Trust me, I know it works.

Next Steps

Are you willing to open up your mindset and embrace paradox? You may hate the process, but be glad you did. Now that’s kind of a paradox in itself, isn’t it? Please share your wisdom and experiences in this forum.


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