“Only by learning to live in harmony with contradictions can you stay afloat”
Will the post COVID-19 process of transformation honor the paradox of simultaneous continuity and change? How many of you have survived traumatic events, yet have remained unchanged in basic values or ideology? We adapt to changing circumstances but tend to remain unchanged at the level of our core beliefs. Others, having endured similar events, become different people in that their basic assumptions changed considerably. These people are simultaneously the same, yet different. Organisations are no different.
The business dictionary defines “contradiction” as a combination of statements, conditions, ideas, or features of a situation that is opposed to one another. COVID-19 demonstrated that leading and managing with contradictions requires managing within the paradoxical nature of inter-connection, and participation is a leadership competency requirement. For simplicity, I have divided leadership contradictions into three categories: systemic contradictions, practical contradictions, and personal contradictions.
With COVID-19 we saw first-hand the dynamics of technology, the rapidity of changes in the external environment, and burgeoning challenges associated with a society under threat. Social media, just-in-time decision making, the explosion of knowledge, and a media dominated public discourse altered the balance of power between formal and informal leaders.
Conversations took place in an open marketplace fueled by ever changing information that enhanced and impeded the same circumstances. Leaders seemed to be caught in a tectonic shift, with a new distribution of leadership responsibilities between formal and informal leaders.
Constantly ‘shifting sands’ of global policy environments create a number of contradictions that leaders must deal with. Change itself is the ultimate contradiction, the juxtaposition of aspirations for the future with our current state. Social media, news media, the internet and technology have sped up the ability to acquaint people with the problems that need addressing. Some of the technological solutions have not yet been systematically harnessed by the organisational system to solve them.
Leaders live in a world where large-scale reform is possible, yet due to the same factors, reform remains difficult to achieve. The abundance of the system impels the parts of the system to bolster their independence, while at the same time, the nature of the problems that need to be solved require the exact opposite – interdependence.
As organisations transform and grow, leaders need to act more strategically, and pay less attention to operational demands, the very demands they excelled prior to being promoted. An additional contradiction is found in the amount of time required to establish large-scale change, the current turnover of leaders and the realities of the existing processes do not stretch across the same timeline. It is little wonder why middle-managers committed to an organisation or community feel that they can ‘wait out’ the demands for changes that come from the top.
COVID-19 placed a spotlight on the tension between collective accountability and individual accountability and further illustrated the contradictions leaders face. Yes, leaders are well aware of their individual accountabilities relative to their designated role. The question: are leaders willing to be accountable for collective results that are a consequence of being a member of a team?
Behaviour change illuminates the first human contradiction: How do leaders find the time for reflection and practice in an environment where demands are insatiable and mitigates against these very actions? Given this circumstance, do leaders understand how behavioural change is subject to the amount of change they are able to take on.
Leaders find themselves in a place where personal intellect prompts them to create significant reform in order to be relevant and master a whole new array of skills to be successful at it. Yet their emotions may tell them to take the time to learn new skills or unlearn behaviours that are no longer desirable. It is no surprise that letting go of what one knows in order to grab onto something new gives leaders pause.
The tension between independence and interdependence, represented by individualistic versus distributed references to leadership, creates further contradiction. Who is the follower in a distributed leadership approach? Perhaps the term does not apply in this context. Is ‘follower’ another term for anyone who does not preside over a formal leadership position, or someone who, regardless of role, simply does what they are asked to do?
To be a leader of change in the post COVID-19 complex environment, a leader needs to combine and integrate ideas, even when they appear contradictory and find the “sweet spot” between fundamentally paradoxical notions and tensions.
- Reflecting on your personal COVID-19 learning, how are you spending your time? Does this match your key leadership priorities?
- Do you accept that leading in environments full of contradictory demands and contradictions is never simple?
- As a leader are you open to alternatives?
- How are you guiding yourself through an unprecedented degree of uncertainty, complexity and change in our connected global world?
- Do you have people around you who will tell you things you may not want to hear but need to hear?
- How are you developing the personality, the conceptual ability, the artistic temperament, and the practice of successful juxtaposition of opposites to find the sweet spot?
Adaptation of a January 2015 Longwoods published essay by Hugh MacLeod and Graham Dickson titled ‘Healthcare Leadership Contradictions’ and material from the book ‘Humanizing Leadership’ by Hugh MacLeod.