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Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault has been called a radical pragmatist. Bill Gates was dubbed a practical visionary by a prominent journalist.

Such contradictions would seem like a hindrance for managers. They provoke internal conflict when it’s time to act, and confusion when followers expect consistency from a boss. But maybe from another perspective, they are an advantage in leadership, allowing a greater ability to adapt to situations and people, if we get the combination right.

Consultants David Dotlich and Peter Cairo outlined 11 behaviours that derail leaders in Why CEOs Fail, many of which occur when a successful trait is carried to the extreme. Confidence is wonderful, but when carried too far, becomes dangerous arrogance. Prudence and thoroughness is important, but excessive caution can sink your career. You need to have the right balance.

Executive coach Tim Elmore says leaders face the challenge these days of collaborating with a more educated, entitled work force, which has greater expectations of satisfaction and rewards than in past generations. That calls for leaders who can balance intellectual, emotional, social and moral intelligences. The best leaders juggle seemingly contradictory traits. “They balance paradoxes that make them worth following,” he writes in The Eight Paradoxes of Great Leadership.

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He outlines eight such paradoxes, some of which will seem familiar, and others novel, but each worth considering in your leadership equation:

  • Great leaders balance confidence and humility: Reality changes so quickly; leaders cannot become arrogant, but must be open to adjusting their perspective. People want leaders with confidence, but not ones blind to reality and lacking in humanity. Humility makes your confidence believable.
  • Great leaders leverage their vision and their blind spots: This is particularly vital when starting something new. You need to see what you want to reach, but not be deterred by some of the obstacles you discover on the way. “Vision gives leaders (and teams) a direction, but blind spots are often the very motivator that enables them to approach the idea in an unconventional way – and believe they can pull it off,” he writes. Not seeing all the obstacles and challenges ahead can be an advantage.
  • Great leaders embrace visibility and invisibility: In the beginning of a mission, most people need a leader to be visible, demonstrating what is achievable. But over time, those people need the leader to step aside and allow them to realize their own potential. Leaders need to know when to lead and when to get out of the way. He notes Martin Luther King Jr. made careful decisions on whether to be present or not at meetings, often based on whether those attending needed their own voices to be heard.
  • Great leaders are stubborn and open-minded: To his mind, this may be the toughest paradox. Leaders won’t achieve goals without being strong-willed. But they don’t have all the answers and must be flexible and open to other ideas and voices. Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski has said: “The most incredibly interesting thing about being a leader is what adjustments you make and how you make them while keeping your core principles alive and well.” Keep in mind that being too open-minded, blowing with the wind, drives people nuts.
  • Great leaders are deeply personal and inherently collective: A lot of leaders during the pandemic groped toward acting on this notion, as they realized followers wanted bosses who understood their personal life before they could move on to focus on the business. Focusing only on collective goals can leave followers frustrated. And leaders need to remember the collective role is not just driving business goals but representing and speaking for your team while understanding their feelings.
  • Great leaders are teachers and learners: Leaders help followers to see and understand their situation better. But to do that, leaders must be life-long learners. Mr. Elmore will often tell his team: “This is what I know today, but there’s always more to know.”
  • Great leaders model high standards and gracious forgiveness: Leaders must demand the best from their followers, but realize team members will make mistakes, and so be willing to absolve those who acknowledge they failed to meet the standard and choose to improve. “Forgiveness isn’t approving what happened. It’s choosing to rise above it,” he says. It also encourages folks to still take risks.
  • Great leaders are timely and timeless: You must embody timeless principles but deal with current issues. You must understand the past, sense the future, and deal with the immediate.

In The CEO Test, journalist-turned-consultant Adam Bryant and former CEO Kevin Sharer share the confident-and-humble paradox, but also offer some others: Be urgent and patient. Be compassionate and demanding. Be optimistic and realistic. Create freedom and structure.

They say you must read the weather – and set the weather. That means a leader must be able to sense the mood of the team and realize that he or she sets the tone through their body language and energy. Lisa Falzone, CEO of Athena Security, told the authors, “You always want to have composure in front of your employees. They can tell if you’re stressed, and then they feed off that.”

Their final paradox is that the best leaders must be selfless and selfish. Leadership is not about you – it’s about what you do for the people you lead and for the organization. But if you don’t take care of yourself first, you won’t be able to help others over the long run.

It would be nice if life – and leadership – could be simple, without contradictions. But leading is complicated and you need to find the right balance between these contradictions to succeed.


  • London Business School professor Julian Birkinshaw says it’s a myth that digital disruption is hitting every industry hard, dislodging incumbents. A look at the Fortune 500 by sector between 1995 and 2020 shows that the only sectors seeing significant churn were technology, media, telecom, and retail, which includes restaurants and hotels. Other sectors were fairly stable, such as energy, materials, and chemicals; industrials, automotive, and aerospace; consumer products; health care and pharmaceuticals; transportation and travel; and even financial services and insurance.
  • It’s lonely at the top – or even the middle – for leaders. Consultant Ken Vaughan recommends bringing together a group of peers for regular sessions in which you can share issues and feelings, getting advice from each other. Might be something for your 2022 to-do list.
  • When setting stretch goals, don’t forget to build in ethics, says consultant Linda Fisher Thornton.

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