The Hidden Opportunity in Paradoxes

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Illustration Credit: Traci Daberko

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When faced with impossible choices, organizations that embrace seemingly contradictory options expand the scope of what’s possible.

Leading an organization demands that we confront a constant array of choices. Should we invest in this market or that one? Should we offer luxury products or mass-market goods? Should we provide incentives to individuals or teams? Should we recruit university graduates exclusively or look for nongraduates with specialized skills? While these choices can require careful consideration, they are essentially straightforward. The really hard choices that leaders will face in our increasingly complex world, argue some management thinkers, represent a different kind of problem altogether: the paradox.

Many of us are likely to have encountered the idea of paradox primarily in the context of art or philosophy. Defined by the Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English as “a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true,” the word paradox might bring to mind examples like the Socratic statement “I know that I know nothing.” Paradoxes can be interesting to ponder, but we don’t often consider how they might expand our thinking as organizational leaders. That is changing in important ways.

In their book Both/And Thinking, business scholars Wendy K. Smith and Marianne W. Lewis define paradoxes as “persistent, interdependent contradictions.”1 That means they contain at least two elements that relate to each other but appear to contradict. London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra described the “authenticity paradox”: Leaders are told to be authentic in order to succeed, but an authentic leader can struggle to develop because they get fixated on being true to themself instead of what is required to succeed.2 Some scholars assert that the very idea of an organization has a seeming paradox at its heart because “on the one hand it contains free, creative, independent human subjects; on the other hand, the relation between these subjects aspires to be one of organization, order, and control.”3 Innovation seems acutely paradoxical.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.


1. W.K. Smith and M.W. Lewis, “Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems” (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2022).

2. H. Ibarra, “The Authenticity Paradox,” Harvard Business Review 93, no. 1-2 (January-February 2015): 52-59.


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