The Power of Paradox

Balancing multiple possibilities is the key to success.

<p> F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, &ldquo;The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.&rdquo; In contrast to Fitzgerald, the polemical nature of today&rsquo;s domestic and international political and social diatribe offers a cautionary tale for those of us who are leading the cultivation of intelligence in the corporate arena. It is painful to watch people suffer while their leaders defend self-interested, partisan positions. These leaders seem to have the inability or unwillingness to see beyond their position to a greater good. </p><p>More than a decade ago, Jerry Porras and Jim Collins cited research from which they concluded that leaders who last and make a lasting difference have the exceptional ability to deal with paradoxes and seeming contradictions rather than yielding to the &ldquo;tyranny of the &lsquo;or.&rsquo;&rdquo; This is the tyranny that pushes people to believe that things must be either A or B, but not both. They were speaking of conflict between notions such as the following:</p> <ul><li>You can have change or stability, but not both.</li><li>You can be conservative or bold. </li><li>You can have low cost or high quality. </li><li>You can have creative autonomy or consistency. </li><li>You can invest for the future or do well in the short term.</li><li>You can make progress by methodical planning or by opportunistic groping. </li><li>You can be idealistic (values-driven) or pragmatic (profit-driven).</li></ul> <p>While it may sound too good to be true, it is often possible to embrace both extremes of many apparent contradictions simultaneously. If we are willing to do some hard cognitive work and lay aside pure selfishness, we can find ways to have the best of both worlds.</p> <p>Porras and Collins noted many examples of leaders and companies that enjoyed the power of embracing the paradox. What they described was not a compromise, some sort of watered-down concession, or a balance point between two extremes; rather, it was finding the best of both extremes, and eliminating the worst, to create an altogether new alternative. Great companies, great countries and great leaders don&rsquo;t seek some sort of dumbed-down accommodation of opposing positions. Rather, they work for and attain the best of both. Great leaders don&rsquo;t seek balance between short term and long term; they seek to do well in the short term and very well in the long term. They don&rsquo;t pursue balance between idealism and profitability; rather, they find ways to be idealistic and highly profitable simultaneously. Great leaders don&rsquo;t hang tight to a core ideology versus reaching for stimulating vigorous change and movement; they do both with complete commitment.</p> <p>Here are some of the paradoxical positions Collins and Porras cite as examples coming from the best companies:</p> <ul><li>Purpose beyond profit and pragmatic pursuit of profit.</li><li>Conservatism around the core and commitment to bold, risky moves.</li><li>Clear vision and sense of direction, and opportunistic groping and experimentation.</li><li>Audacious goals and incremental evolutionary progress.</li><li>Selection of managers steeped in the core and managers who induce change.</li><li>Ideological control and operational autonomy.</li><li>Extremely tight culture and the ability to change, move and adapt.</li><li>Investment for the long term and demands for short-term performance.</li><li>Philosophical, visionary, and futuristic, and superb daily execution &mdash; &ldquo;nuts and bolts.&rdquo;</li><li>Organization aligned with a core ideology and adapted to its environment.</li></ul> <p>Years before Porras and Collins, Harvard psychologist Dr. David McClelland helped us understand that leaders who embrace paradox and complexity consistently lead organizations to significantly outperform those who do not. He demonstrated that the ability to extract the best of opposing positions was the source of innovation and the key to an advancing civilization, not merely the path to company profits. </p> <p>Our companies and our world are in need of leaders who will help us move away from simplistic polarities that create artificial and oftentimes destructive distinctions to the possibility and the power of paradox. As one who is leading the cultivation of thinking and learning, you have the opportunity, even the obligation, to convene leaders in an environment of civil discourse &mdash; where they do the hard work of holding two opposed ideas in their minds at the same time and functioning in a way that creates solutions that match the complexity and polarities of our day. </p>