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Have you ever felt like your professional duties required you to meet contradictory demands, pulling you in opposite directions, yet each one essential to the survival of the organization? These situations are paradoxes and how you respond to them may determine the sustainability of your organization.

A paradox is a pair of obligations or expectations that are legitimate and coherent when considered individually but seem incompatible when considered together. You don’t have the option of eliminating either one of the polarities because they are both essential aspects of the system and therefore inevitably interconnected.

Many situations today require that leaders adopt a paradox perspective where they see a paradox not as a problem to be solved but as a reality that simply IS. Such leaders understand that the implicit pressures that come from meeting contradictory demands are not only normal but, if leveraged right, they can help the organization adapt and remain relevant.

It may be compared to the efforts of a white water rafting team. When rafting you have to shift your weight first to one side then to the other, but you never really “solve” the problem.

Adopting the paradox perspective means being continuously ready to respond to needed adjustments. This requires the development of a high degree of tolerance for ambiguity. When discussing these kinds of issues with your team, help them avoid early closure. Encourage them to continue exploring, investigating, and multiplying alternatives. You could describe this as developing a mindset that is at peace with contradiction.

The preoccupation with resolution thinking forces individuals to evaluate all issues as either/or propositions. Such thinking attempts to select one polarity over the other but this merely delays the inevitable clash of forces and likely makes that clash even worse.*

Instead of attempting to resolve everything, long-term high performance organizations have developed the ability to embrace paradoxical tensions as standard operating procedure and to address conflicting demands simultaneously. They accomplish this through any or all of the following paradox-friendly responses:

  1. Resolution. In this scenario, the leader tries to find ways to satisfy the demands of the opposing polarities simultaneously. It’s a bit like having a mouse, a cat, and a bird in the same cage and trying to feed them all while simultaneously keeping them from eating each other. You might say: “Why not solve the problem by putting them into separate cages?” If that were possible, it would not be a true paradox.
  2. Resignation. According to this option, the leader accepts the idea that these contradictory forces will always be there and seeks to find value in the diverse perspectives they create. The tensions are never reduced–the organization learns to live with them.
  3. Separation. According to this strategy, the leader tries to create a truce between the opposing forces by separating them either by physical distance or through scheduling. As mentioned above, the separation cannot be total because the competing demands continue to be linked. Nevertheless, through separation, the tension between them can be reduced in some cases.

What is the benefit of adopting a paradox perspective? First, it’s your only choice, once you realize that paradox is here to stay. With that knowledge, however, you are liberated from the oppressive need to resolve everything. This allows you to develop responses that lend themselves to sustainability. As individuals and teams seek to attain short-term success, a culture of paradox also empowers them to learn and develop for long-range achievement. Think of it like living in a constant state of Beta. The system is continuously being tested for bugs and improvements are continuously being made.

Using the terminology of music, this is more like a jazz band than a classical orchestra. In the latter, all the scores are known beforehand and success is predetermined. In a jazz band, there are no scores. You create the music as you go. And, if you make a mistake, why, it’s not a mistake-it’s just cool.

So, do you have any examples of paradoxical forces that you face? What are some ways that you have responded? Please share your thoughts below.


Contrary to the Taoist form of paradoxical philosophy, I do not believe that all life is inherently paradoxical. That kind of thinking could lead one down the path of moral compromise. There are moral issues that must be solved not through balance but by a simple, clear-cut, either-or.


Photo: Jazz Yellow 2 by erikjgreene, September 6, 2006. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

Portrait of Dr. Waddell

Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.