Jan. 11, 2021
Many people can create and execute a vision, but true leaders also embrace a “paradox mindset:” Acknowledging the constant pull of competing interests, and using the tension to grow. Here's how.
Everyone knows what a Polaroid is. If you’re of a certain age, you might have even owned one of the boxy cameras yourself, snapping pictures of friends and gathering around while the photo developed like magic before your eyes. For younger generations, Polaroid’s retro, blown-out aesthetic became a foundational Instagram filter.
Polaroid was launched in 1948 by the inventor Edwin Land, who created the company in answer to a question posed by his 3-year-old daughter: “Why can’t I see the picture now?” Polaroid has been frequently compared to Apple in its design-driven approach to technology, and Steve Jobs himself has cited Land as an inspiration to his own big-idea ethos.
But for all of his great ideas, Land was not a businessman. In his book Instant: The Story of Polaroid , author Christopher Bonanos points out that Land’s emphasis on ideas outshone his interest in profits. Land was a purist and a perfectionist, and his inability to marry his artistic vision with a strong business sense — what Jobs did so well — was a crucial handicap. He handed off the company in 1982, just as digital photography was gaining popularity. Without a visionary CEO at the helm, Polaroid was ill-equipped to keep up with the times.
Like all business leaders, Land was faced with contradictory priorities, one of which was stocking his company with the right mix of managers and dreamers. Many people can create and execute a vision, but true leaders also embrace a “paradox mindset:” Acknowledging the constant pull of competing interests, and using the tension to grow.
Understanding the paradox mindset
Among the first researchers to investigate the paradox mindset was Harvard University psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg, who conducted interviews with 22 Nobel laureates and analyzed autobiographical accounts and manuscripts of great thinkers of the past, including Bohr, Darwin, Einstein and Planck. Each of these people, Rothenberg found , had spent time “actively conceiving multiple opposites or antitheses simultaneously.”
The subjects of Rothenberg’s study were, admittedly, geniuses. But subsequent research has shown that “paradoxical cognition” helps even average minds become stronger and more agile. A 2017 paper by Ella Miron-Spektor, an associate professor of organisational behavior at INSEAD, found that a paradox mindset had a significant influence on subjects’ ability to cope with demands. Miron-Spektor and her team created a questionnaire that asked participants to rate statements about their willingness to embrace contradiction, including:
- When I consider conflicting perspectives, I gain a better understanding of an issue
- I am comfortable working on tasks that contradict each other
- I feel uplifted when I realise that two opposites can be true
Those who scored highly found the challenge of dealing with limited resources energizing and inspiring, with tension enabling them to find more creative solutions to problems within their roles. Those without the paradox tended to crumble, and their performance suffered when resources were scarce.
Cultivating consistency and change
Polaroid’s Edwin Land may have been a visionary, but his company’s inability to innovate with the times led to its demise. By contrast, let’s look at Toyota Motor Corporation, which is routinely ranked one of the most reliable brands and highest-revenue carmakers in the world.
Studies have found that paradoxes are baked into Toyota’s corporate culture. In extensive research published in the Harvard Business Review , authors Hirotaka Takeuchi, Emi Osono and Norihiko Shimizu write that a major factor in the company’s success is that it actually creates contradictions and paradoxes in many aspects of organizational life:
“Employees have to operate in a culture where they constantly grapple with challenges and problems and must come up with fresh ideas,” they write. “That’s why Toyota constantly gets better. The hard and the soft innovations work in tandem. Like two wheels on a shaft that bear equal weight, together they move the company forward.”
Toyota leadership knows that grappling with opposing insights creates greater understanding of an issue, which in turn leads to innovation. “So Toyota deliberately fosters contradictory viewpoints within the organization and challenges employees to find solutions by transcending differences rather than resorting to compromises. This culture of tensions generates innovative ideas that Toyota implements to pull ahead of competitors, both incrementally and radically,” the authors write.
From “either/or” to “both/and”
Eighty percent of managers say that the demands they’re facing are increasing, while the resources to meet said demands are not. This tension forms the basis of the so-called Manager’s Dilemma. What goals take precedence over others? Which fires are put out while others are ignored?
Enter here the idea of “both/and” leadership. Per an article on the topic in Harvard Business Review :
“Leaders who embrace paradox realize that resources, viewed in a different light, can be abundant and often generative. Rather than seeking to slice the pie thinner, people with this value-creating mindset pursue strategies to grow the pie, such as exploring collaborations with new partners, using alternative technologies, or adopting more-flexible time frames for shifting resources for better use.”
Of course, tensions have the ability to trigger stress, anxiety and discomfort. But Miron-Spektor writes that the tensions themselves are not the problem. Rather than eliminating them, we can learn to accept and feel comfortable with them — as well as see them as an opportunity.
As the head of JotForm, I strive to embrace the paradoxes that come with running my company. One example is the idea of being more essential and less involved , which I work through by delegating. This can be hard: There are many day-to-day aspects of my business that I love. But as JotForm grew, so did my responsibilities, and it stopped making sense for me to try to balance it all — not when I could hire competent people that could perform certain tasks better and more efficiently than I could on my own. The paradox mindset isn’t about doing more; it’s about being more mindful about how we use resources.
Paradox-related tensions can initially feel like something is “wrong,” and it’s tempting to try to get rid of the uncomfortable feelings they cause. Instead, try to view that discomfort as a sign of opportunity.
If this doesn’t come naturally, that’s okay. A paradox mindset can be cultivated. When you face tension, Miron-Spektor suggests that instead of prioritizing with “either/or” thinking, play around with your assumptions. Don’t ask “Should I maintain control or let go of control?” Instead, ask “How could I do both?”
Approaching tensions with a “both/and” perspective while honoring their contradictory aspects will make you a more innovative and effective leader — and in all likelihood, you’ll find creativity within yourself that you never knew existed. Such thinking fosters optimism and resilience, and allows the space for both ordinary work and big dreams.
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