The paradoxical leadership & coaching in increased complexity

“It’s obvious we need to cut costs due to COVID-19 crises, but I just feel if we don’t continue investing in business and people, we will have serious consequences next year. I just don’t know which way to go…”

“I want my company to have systems in place. To have predictable processes. To make our daily work easy to follow, to have great traceability of steps. I want a system that will give us stability! But my partner would like us to be extremely flexible all the time. To be able to seize every opportunity, to have many innovative and creative solutions all the time. I can’t really tell who’s right… Is there a way that we could have both at the same time?”

“I constantly receive feedback I’m too direct and straight forward in communication and it hurts people sometimes. I really want to be more diplomatic. It’s only that I’m afraid what would happen to me and my career if I just give up on my directiveness and sharpness.”

“We’ve grown as a company over the night. I need to delegate more, but don’t want to lose control. Don’t know how to achieve it, so I just work more and more. Now I’m too tired. I need to find solution.”

These are just few examples I’ve been hearing from my clients last couple of months.

Leaders are today, more than ever, invited to find ways to integrate opposing directions, opposing needs, opposing objectives, opposing approaches and to manage their flow in the organization.

Just to give you few examples to “taste” this challenge:

Strategy & Execution
Give freedom & Keep control
Invest & Cut costs
Innovate & Keep systems stabile
Task/results orientation & People orientation
Structure & Flexibility
Continuity & Transformation
Centralize & Decentralize
Data & Intuition
Courage & Vulnerability
Being competent & Being challenged
My needs & Other’s needs

The paradoxical mindset

THE NOBEL PRIZE–WINNING physicist Niels Bohr once said, “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.”

Paradoxes, that we also call “polarities” are ongoing, chronic issues that are unavoidable and unsolvable, but manageable!

A fundamental question to ask when encountering a difficulty is: “Is this a problem we can ‘solve,’ or is it an ongoing paradox/polarity we must manage well?” If it is a paradox/polarity you must manage, applying traditional problem-solving skills will increase the problem rather than help it.

There is a significant competitive advantage for organizations that can both solve problems and manage paradoxes/polarities. Organizations that manage polarities well and use the power of tension laying between paradoxes outperform those that don’t.

Here are some examples, mentioned by Berry Johnson in his article “Polarity Management”:

  • In Managing on the Edge, Richard Tanner Pascale studied the 43 companies identified in, In Search of Excellence five years after the original research. He discovered that 14 companies retained their “Excellent” rating and the 29 that did not. The key factor that distinguished the 14 from the 29 was that they managed 7 paradoxes/polarities better. He calls it “managing contention”.
  • In Built to Last, Collins and Porras call it, “The Genius of the ‘AND’”. This was a central distinction between the 18 “Silver” companies that outperformed the stock market for the period from 1926 to 1990 by a factor of 2, and the 18 “Gold” companies that outperformed the stock market during that same period by a factor of 15! The Gold companies tapped the power of polarities = “The Genius of the ‘AND’”.
  • In Charting the Corporate Mind, Charles Hampden-Turner calls it “re-solution of dilemmas.” His research repeatedly shows that organizations effectively managing key organizational dilemmas results in better bottom line performance than those not managing the same dilemmas well.

Toward a dynamic equilibrium

How to achieve this manageable flow of contradictory polarities so important for business and life today?

A well-managed polarity is one in which you capitalize on the inherent tensions between the two poles. You get the benefits of both and the synergies between them.

A paradox/polarity is managed poorly when you over-focus on one side to the neglect of the other. This is likely to occur when the issue is seen as an either/or problem.

Let’s see how this works on the example of one of the hottest topics in business today – innovation:

There is an ongoing imperative to innovate, innovate, innovate… (I’ve even seen a T-shirt given to the employees of one company that has a print on it: “Eat, Sleep, Innovate, Repeat”)

You can not only innovate without keeping your current systems, processes, products or services stable.

The stability of the current state is the one thing that gives you the platform to innovate!

Without stability in the first place that will secure stable cash flow, you could never invest in innovation. Vice versa, successful innovation will lead to a new, upgraded state which will generate more income and consequently you will have more money to invest in new innovative initiatives. And so on in cycles.

The leadership challenge in this situation is to manage the polarity Stability & Innovation well.

In managing polarities, it is never “either or”, it is always “both and” and it is always about dynamics & flow.

A systemic approach that can help

To be on the top of this challenge for both leaders and coaches, we need to upgrade our understanding of this topic and to acquire new competencies and skills to firstly raise our awareness and see all paradoxes/polarities around us and secondly to know how to manage them well.

Leaders that manage polarities well are enabled to:

Directly upgrade effectiveness and efficiency

Define and execute strategies and tactics that are more effective and sustainable

Have better insights into opportunities and know how to utilize them to their maximum

Implement changes effectively and increase flexibility

Raise the ceiling of what is possible

Have a positive impact on other people’s motivation and engagement

Create an environment which supports development, satisfaction and happiness

Feel happier and more fulfilled in all areas of life.

The “Polarity Integration Coaching” gives all the necessary tools for coaches to help their clients navigate through new and complex business and life paradigm. Our program, when adjusted for leaders, gives them necessary overview, understanding and basic competences to face this challenge.

This powerful model teaches step by step the process of identifying, analyzing and managing polarities.

By releasing and utilizing the energy locked in the tension of polarities, visions and goals become achievable and challenges that at this moment seem “unsolvable” will finally have their dynamic solutions.

About Ivanka Novakovic 2 Articles
Ivanka Novaković ACC, is a psychologist and organizational development expert with 20 years of experience in organizational and leadership development. She is also a professional business coach and PACT™ consultant with license. She started her career within Coca Cola system working on strategic people development, continuing as a HR Director in brewing company and finally deciding to start consultancy career in 2004. Her work has been driven by the vision of constructive, holistic and humanistic organizations that promote achieving both great business results and constructive organizational culture that enables employees to be happy, authentic and inspired by their work while achieving and overcoming their goals. Ivanka has been working as a coach with individuals, teams and organizations since 2008. She was also leading large scale coaching projects in several large and medium sized organizations. She is one of founders and first Vice President of ICF Serbia Chapter. Ivanka is a mom to 3 beautiful boys and arts and nature lover.

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