Business & Leadership

Leadership is the Art of Managing Paradoxes (Part I)

In the popular imagination, great leaders possess a wide array of qualities and values. To such a degree that the business of leadership begins to look like the art of managing a series of paradoxes.

In the popular imagination, great leaders possess a wide array of qualities and values. To such a degree that the business of leadership begins to look like the art of managing a series of paradoxes.

How do the great entrepreneurs and statesmen reconcile their speech, strong personality and ability to listen? How do they become models of self-confidence who, at the same time are among those who doubt the most? How are they able to centralize power and vision, whilst at the same time decentralize action and organization?


Throughout these three paradoxes – and there are more than just the three – one of the sources of leadership can be seen in action. Great leaders manage such dilemmas with a practiced hand, guided by a sharp sense of pragmatism, a magnificent feel for situations and an uncommon work ethic.


Paradox 1: How to reconcile self-confidence with humility and a capacity to doubt?


Two grand characteristics of great leaders: they have the supreme confidence of their followers, and at the same time a capacity to be humble and to entertain doubt. These two qualities don’t seem to sit well together, even if the concept of the “humble leader” (sometimes referred to as “Level 5 Leadership”) has been gaining ground.


The paradox rests on the impression that those who exude self-confidence don’t doubt themselves. However, this paradox is only an appearance.


For one thing, there is a temporal sequence, certain and invisible, that must be recalled. He who doubts, hesitates, consults, searches his heart can, because of prior reflection, affirm his convictions, decide on his strategy, learn self-understanding. First comes doubt, then comes self-confidence.


For another, self-confidence can be the base of action that relies on methodical doubt to find the best way forward, the most redoubtable of strategies. The leader knows who he is and where he is going, but he understands the complexity of the voyage and advances with caution to conserve his energy.


Furthermore, the leader who knows his goals can work with his inner-circle to hit upon the best course of action to reach them.


Self-confidence does not mean shutting others out, ignoring doubt or assuming victory. Likewise, doubt is not an absolute vacuum, an inability to act. It’s avoiding unwinnable wars. It’s an ability to analyse that allows a leader to know upon which fundamentals he may count, and in which areas he must proceed with caution, not confusing presumption with certitude.    


Paradox 2: How to centralize vision and decentralize action in an organization?       


The second paradox is that great leaders are at once centralizers and decentralizers. As directors they centralize the vision and, to achieve their goals, centralize lots of information, strategic as well as financial.


But to have a major and widespread effect, they also have the ability to decentralize action and organization.


Once a vision has been established, putting in place an organization becomes crucial: it has to reflect the vision, but also take into account specifics of location, staff profiles, and, even, the client. This taking into account of circumstances on the ground guides a decentralization that is systematic, so that the action be directed as close to the ground as possible, notably when it pertains to marketing and sales. The leader gives access to information, makes empowerment possible, shares the power to act and to initiate action even. A leader is not just someone who brings together a network of leaders who share the same mission, share the same platform, in order to succeed. He is also shares his leadership and doesn’t hoard it. He truly delegates, content to structure and clarify the principal objectives and the framework of intervention of the network of leaders that he directs.



Author: Pierre Lorenceau

Translator: Simon Mc Geady


This article also appears in our monthly newsletter “Leaders Wisdom Journal”. To Subscribe.


Accenture's CEO and CFO interview by Leaders League Group

About us