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The Paradoxical Qualities of a Leader

We all use phrases in everyday life that are paradoxical:

“less is more”

“tough love”

“cruel to be kind”

The Collins Dictionary definition of a paradox is when a situation “involves two or more facts or qualities which seem to contradict each other.”

In our September webinar, we looked at methods to lead through economic uncertainty. The concept that paradoxical qualities are requirements of successful leaders and teams was introduced.

For example:

Are strong traits really strengths? Or, are they potential derailers?

Every trait can be a strength or a derailer, depending if the trait is balanced by another seemingly opposite (paradoxical) trait.

Paradoxical Qualities of a Leader

Team Working International are authorised partners of Harrison Assessments Paradoxical Leadership Technology. This is a behavioural preferences inventory that helps teams and individuals become more sensitive to others. It measures a series of 12 paradoxical qualities, including:

  • Respectful candor
  • Confident receptiveness
  • Compassionate enforcing
  • Helpful assertiveness


Graph of a Harrison Assessment measure



The diagram shows the traits of communication in terms of balancing respect with clarity (candour). Being over candid can be disruptively blunt, leading to upset and mistrust. Conversely people can have strong diplomacy, which can lead to them being evasive, causing a lack of clarity and resolution. The key to creating a positive culture is to work on balancing these apparently paradoxical traits. You can read more about how we use Harrison Assessments to analyse these paradoxical traits here.

If we look back through our lives at people who have influenced us most: family, teachers, managers; they are probably the ones who give you honest but constructive feedback; the ones who had mastered forthright diplomacy.

More and more evidence is being published showing that successful leaders need to navigate a broad range of apparent contradictions, developing a paradoxical mindset.




Paradoxical Mindset

In her book “Ruthlessly Caring and other Paradoxical Mindsets,” psychology researcher Amy Walters Cohen, argues that five paradoxical mindsets are key to high performance and effective decision making:

  • Ruthlessly caring
  • Ambitiously appreciative
  • Politically virtuous
  • Confidently humble
  • Responsibly daring.

Leaders need to move away from straightforward either-or thinking and have a more complex approach to management. It is about listening to their team, openness, seeing opportunities and taking responsibility.

Leadership isn’t unidirectional – it is paradoxical

Blair Sheppard of PwC has been looking at the challenges facing global leaders and has observed six paradoxes that leaders need to embrace. He sees these as a system that all need to be in balance.

Three of his six paradoxes are familiar: humble hero; traditional innovator (responsibly daring) and high-integrity politician. But his other three are very much contradictions of the current era:

  • Tech-savvy humanist
  • Globally minded localist
  • Strategic executor.

Sheppard believes that the ability to inhabit both elements of each paradox will be critical to leadership success.

Breakthrough Leadership

Read about our breakthrough leadership courses which will help your organisation move forward with confidence. Not only will you discover neuroscience-based tools to lead change, but we will explore getting those power dynamics right so that your teams can work more effectively to enhance creativity and innovation.