How can two contradictory ideas exist simultaneously? And why is welcoming them a good thing?

Nothing these days—and probably since time began—is black and white. Most things exist somewhere along a spectrum. A paradox is one such thing: a seemingly contradictory set of circumstances, traits, styles, or approaches that, at first glance, may seem mutually exclusive but are actually see-sawing on the tension line between the two. 

Longtime organizational consultant and leadership coach Carolien Moors, who also instructs leadership and communications courses for the College of Continuing and Professional Studies, says that effective leaders need to be able and willing to juggle seemingly contradictory traits, which is very much needed in these ever-changing, fast-paced, and uncertain times.

“Many of my executive clients feel the pressure from their stakeholders of having to be a cheerleader, a strategist, a therapist, a visionary, an organizer, and much more, all in one. These expectations often seem paradoxical and near impossible to them. Again, a paradox is an apparently incongruous proposition, and according to Tim Elmore in his book The Eight Paradoxes of Great Leadership, great leaders manage the following eight leadership paradoxes:

  • They are timely and timeless.
  • They balance confidence with humility.
  • They are teachers and they are learners.
  • They leverage their vision and their blind spots.
  • They are stubborn while they are also open-minded.
  • They embrace visibility while they embrace invisibility.
  • They are deeply personal, and they have a true collective focus.
  • They model adhering to high standards and they are graciously forgiving.

“Everyone has a unique managerial and leadership journey, during which certain aspects of their personalities and certain of their strengths were pushed to the next level to be successful in their current position,” explains Moors, who will be presenting a free webinar on another aspect of leadership on October 18. “There’s a personality and skills component, and there are also company, culture, and industry components. There’s a big difference between managing and leading, the focus is very different. So what made someone successful as a supervisor and maybe even a manager may not make them successful at the next leadership level. 

“Now a real easy example is delegation: the higher you climb, the more you need to delegate and realize accomplishment through others. I really see people struggle with this at higher levels as they climb the ladder. Sometimes it’s the organizational culture, where expectations are pushing them in a certain direction and sometimes it’s basically personal tendencies mixed with blind spots. For example, someone whose drive and ambition helped them be really successful to get to a certain level will need to adopt a more humble attitude at the leadership level.”

Carolien Moors stands in front of a bookshop window with the blonde brick building and blue sky across the street reflecting in the glass


Now that we have an idea of what a leadership paradox is, let’s find out what Moors has to say about how to embrace them at work and in life.

Where does one start to understand how to embrace and leverage a leadership paradox?

The basis for even realizing where you are on the spectrum is emotional intelligence. Now, awareness doesn’t mean you can manage it, it doesn’t mean you know how to dial things up or down. You may have gotten where you are in your leadership journey by being aggressive and confident and you may lack awareness that you’re coming off too strong in a particular situation. So being aware and then learning to own it and find balance along the spectrum is necessary as a leader. You need to realize when you have to step up and even drive up that ambition and when to step back and let others be in the spotlight or take the lead.

Does balancing these paradoxes make one a better leader?

I think great leaders are both extremely determined and really adaptable. It’s the wisdom and experience of knowing which trait you need to amp up and which one you need to dial down in a particular situation. They may seem incompatible things to manage, but they’re not. They do, however, require practice and insights and a lot of patience—and sometimes you have to fight your own tendencies.

The vast majority of my director and C-suite clients, when they score themselves on the very many paradoxes that might be relevant in their world, they have very strong tendencies on one end of the spectrum or the other.Their task is to learn when and how to operate more from midfield, or when to combine the two seemingly incompatible styles or traits. 

How might personal values and belief impact a leader’s ability to manage paradoxes?

One example is a value based on how people look at mistakes, failures, and conflict. If you were raised by parents who strove for perfection and you felt uncomfortable or embarrassed acknowledging a mistake, rather than it being treated as a learning opportunity, that will impact how you deal with mistakes and failures, including those that can have huge consequences. People carry a lot, autobiographically, based on their experiences in life. 

Can organizations foster an environment that supports leaders in managing paradoxes?

The first thing that comes to mind is fostering psychological safety in the workplace. It means that you and I can speak up. We can point to mistakes. We can challenge the status quo or challenge someone’s solutions and be taken seriously without fear of any negative consequences such as being shamed or silenced. Managing paradoxes is hard work and you won’t always manage them perfectly. Leaders, just like every person, are never a finished product.

If an organization wants to build that kind of culture, it’s really important to provide ongoing support, whether it’s through outside coaches or internal mentoring or online classes. The real focus should be on continuous development; strengthening awareness, reflection, candid dialogue, meaningful feedback, and collaborative learning. This includes ongoing, open conversation about these topics among peers and across departments and hierarchies in the organization. 

I am thrilled that this concept is out in the world because, even though we’ve been talking about leaders, we all have to manage paradoxes at every level and in every aspect of personal and professional life.