From Tension to Transformation | How Wise Decision-Makers Transcend Paradoxes

From the 2008 financial crisis, to the tsunamis of digitization and machine learning and Covid-19, life for leaders has never been more complex. Contradictions and tensions are multiplying by the day. Can we solve them? A large body of research suggests that we can: by managing paradoxes through wise decision-making.

Times of crisis present executives with a particularly painful paradox: meeting shareholder expectations, ‘versus’ preserving jobs. Covid-19 has created an even more difficult choice. Should all companies be saved at all costs? And how do we preserve the financial interests of investors, whilst limiting unemployment and supplier bankruptcies?

As Amrop global board member Andrew Woodburn told South Africa's Money Show in the early days of the pandemic outbreak: "This is no longer about profit. Every single leader I've spoken to is about: how can I protect my people? How can I guarantee them some sort of existence going forward? How can I ensure that this business is going to be here, when we all go back to work?"

Tension To Transformation

The tense anatomy of a paradox

A paradox contains contradictory yet interrelated elements. Taken in isolation, these may seem logical. Taken simultaneously, they seem irrational, even absurd. Paradoxes are sticky, they seem to persist over time. They are tricky, and can easily lead to perceptions of inconsistency. The tensions they contain can provoke conflict and defensive reactions. No wonder leaders often feel paralyzed by paradoxes.

What exactly makes paradoxes so uncomfortable? One reason is our attitude to paradoxes. When we come up against one, we react defensively to this thorny problem. We seek to reduce our anxiety by suppressing its inconsistencies, ‘pushing them under the carpet’. We seek pain relief by emphasizing one aspect of duality over the other. We frame the tension or contradiction as an either/or choice. But doing this can make matters worse, leading to deep ‘mixed feelings’ and the sense of feeling stuck. When we choose one option over the other, it’s rather like a seesaw; sitting on one seat only pushes the other seat up, re-emphasizing its demands.

In a recent Amrop interview, industry leader Angelos Papadimitriou warns against “simplistic ways to avoid balanced, complex decision-making; or to hide a lack of courage.”

More than a dilemma, the notion of a paradox is rooted in the acceptance that logically and socially-constructed contradictions are a natural part of reality. Opposing yet interdependent, these elements pre-suppose each other for their existence and meaning.

Resolving a paradox demands a ‘dialectical’ approach. Simply put, this is about viewing issues from multiple perspectives based on discourse. It is a quest for the most economical, reasonable reconciliation of information and positions. More than pursuing the middle ground or a trade-off, the paradox-savvy executive is actually transcending the opposing ideas to build something new. S/he seeks an optimization, a simultaneous pursuit of both poles over time.

The conflict in a paradox, skillfully addressed, produces a new set of arrangements and practices: a transformation that releases and transcends the core tension. So, in paradox resolution, it’s the tension itself that has provided the synergy for a novel idea or perspective. And so, through wise decision-making, we can move from tension to transformation.

A User's Guide to Paradox Leadership: in the full article you will find:

  • The factors that enable wise leaders to transcend paradoxes and ‘manage in the gray’
  • How to break free of thinking prisons
  • Persistent paradoxes captured and explained
  • Examles of organizations who have put paradox thinking at the core
  • How Eastern and Western traditions approach paradoxes
  • Preparation for paradoxical leadership:
  1. Positioning the paradoxical leader: 'strategic sensing' and 'integrative ability'
  2. The journey from lone survivor to collaborator
  3. Three steps to paradox resolution
  4. How the 4 forms of intelligence combine to build trust – EQ, MQ, IQ and RQ


Dr. Peter Verhezen is Visiting Professor for Business in Emerging Markets and Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Antwerp and Antwerp Management School (Belgium). Peter has authored a number of articles and books in the domain of governance, risk management and responsible leadership, and collaborates closely with Amrop in the development of the wise leadership concept.

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