Paradoxical Leadership and How It Can Help

06 May 2022

Have you ever felt as if you‘re in the middle of a bridge and wondering which way to turn?

Organisations often get into similar situations with the complexity of decision-making leading to tensions that pull in different directions; for example, changing versus carrying on with business-as-usual. This, in particular, is the case when organisations go through agile transformations and need to accommodate both change and stability. It is the role of leaders in such transformations to know how to respond to such tensions. Considerable research has been carried out to help leaders in such situations.

Here we would like to draw your attention to what is generically called paradox theory.

What is paradox theory and how can they help?

Paradox theory explores how organisations can take advantage of opposing demands and live in the long term with both sides of a tension, rather than having to take sides and make choices. In the book ‘Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics’, Stacey (2007) defines a paradox as the ‘presence together at the same time of self-contradictory, essentially conflicting ideas, none of which can be eliminated or resolved’ (p. 17).

He also highlights the ‘paradoxical nature of organizational life’, and argues that living with paradox, rather than eliminating paradox, leads to ‘creative novelty’. A notable example of the contradictions that persist and coexist is the Agile Manifesto itself (Beck, Beedle, Bennekum, & al., 2001), which suggest that rather than trying to eliminate contradictions, organisations and teams should support their co-existence.

In the paper ‘Using a Paradox to Build Management and Organization Theories’, the authors (Poole & Van De Ven, 1989) draw from an extensive review of literature in sociology and psychology, and propose four ways to address paradox between two elements, A and B:

  • ‘keep A and B separate and their contrasts appreciated’, i.e., when the decision is to accept the paradox and learn to live with it’;
  • ‘situate A and B at different levels or locations in the social world (e.g. micro and macro levels)’, i.e., when the separation of opposite tensions in a paradox at some level (space, granularity) helps in dealing with them;
  • ‘separate A and B temporally in the same location’, i.e., when opposite tensions in a paradox do not occur simultaneously and their temporal separation and influence over each other over time, and their relationships can be understood;
  • ‘find a new perspective that eliminates the opposition between A and B’, i.e., when the opposite tensions in a paradox can be synthesised by taking a different perspective.

Living with paradox and embracing tensions requires what Lewis et al(2014), in ‘Paradoxical Leadership to Enable Strategic Agility’, call paradoxical leadership; they propose five practices to guide it:

  1. ‘value paradoxes as a vital ingredient of high performance’
  2. ‘proactively identify and raise tensions
  3. avoid the trap of anxiety and defensiveness’
  4. ‘consistently communicate both/and vision’ (‘that leverages the benefits of each side separately, while also tapping into their synergistic potential’),
  5. ‘separate efforts to focus on both sides of a paradox’ (p.60)

Paradoxical leadership emphasises the acceptance and the continuous revisiting of contrary elements.

There are naturally other approaches to dealing with contradictory tensions and paradox theory is just one such approach. Some researchers, Hargrave and Van de Ven (2017), for example, propose the integration of paradox theory approach with a dialectical perspective that views tensions as leading to conflict and a resulting transformation. This is a field with an intensive research agenda that we wanted to highlight here rather than extensively explore; agile leaders need to be aware of such research and of the guidance proposed even if careful navigation of different approaches is needed.

To learn more about agile leadership head to our Nine Principles of Agile Leadership

This blog is part of emerging research from the Agile Research Network



Agile Research Network

Agile Research Network


The Agile Research Network (ARN) is a collaboration between researchers at two UK universities at the forefront of investigating agile methodologies:

  • The Open University (OU) has a strong research record in using agile methods in practice.
  • The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) has a strong record of linking research, teaching and practice through industry-based research and practitioner-focussed Masters and doctoral programmes

ARN is funded through a number of sources; currently, it is funded by the two university members and the Agile Business Consortium.

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