Polarities and Paradoxes: Broadening Approaches to Leadership

Last Updated: Jan 20, 2021 | Executive Coaching, Leadership

By Sandra M. Martínez, Ph.D., PCC: As an executive coach, I support leaders in expanding their awareness of their preferences, and developing a broader repertoire of perspectives and behaviors in order to respond with greater flexibility and resilience to the challenges they face. 

Navigating with resilience in the face of the uncertainty and turbulence we currently face requires leaders to deal effectively with paradox, sometimes called polarities.  

What does this mean?  

All of us have a tendency to frame, whether consciously or not, our choices as two distinct options unrelated to one another. Managing complexity implies an understanding of paradox: that two different, seemingly opposing, values, approaches or actions might be interrelated and equally valuable.     

Why is this important?  

If we feel that, in facing a dilemma, we can choose only one of two distinct choices, we may not be seeing the value of the other, seemingly contradictory behavior. In fact, in not being able to ‘see’ the choices clearly, we are thus unable to consider a range of potentially effective approaches to leadership. Further, an Either/Or perspective hampers us from sensing and responding to all the nuanced factors at play and may propel us onto a path of diminishing returns related to the specific challenge at hand.   

For example, some individuals prefer to be direct and speak out, they are comfortable using candor; others are diplomatic, always seeking harmony. Some prefer structured meetings and others advocate for more flexibility. There are many other leadership paradoxes, such as:

  • being visionary while keeping your feet on the ground;
  • expressing confidence in subordinates while also supervising them; or 
  • being self-assured and being able to demonstrate humility.   

Such tensions, dilemmas or paradoxes have important implications for leadership development and the coaching process. As leaders, we develop our capacity by expanding our repertoire of perspectives and behaviors. Our preferred approach works well some of the time, but not always. Coaches support clients to see their preferences and consider other approaches. Together, the coach and client identify safe places to ‘practice’ different approaches and behaviors, from those they prefer. Over time, the leader develops a capacity to make a choice about responding to situations and challenges from a broader palette of perspectives and action.

For more about navigating polarities, broadening your approach to leadership, and executive coaching, schedule a consultation with Sandra.

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