The Paradox Mindset
Do you sometimes feel like you are struggling with too many competing demands?
If you answered YES you may be experiencing the tensions of paradox. At the most basic level, a paradox is a statement that is self-contradictory because it contains two components that are both true, but in general, cannot be true at the same time. On the surface, it appears that embracing and pursuing one will inevitably hamper the other. In paradox language, we call the ends of the paradox poles and we wrestle with the pressure to push towards both poles at the same time.
Educational leaders constantly face paradoxes in school, for example, should we embrace change or support stability within the school, establish close relationships or keep a proper distance, trust one’s staff or keep an eye on what is happening. Some poles of paradoxes are shown in the picture below.
Experienced leaders understand that pursuing any one of these paradox poles could lead us to sacrifice the other.
However, most people prefer clarity (humans are hard-wired for consistency – we experience cognitive dissonance when there is an apparent inconsistency) so it can be tempting to select one pole of the paradox. The problem is that choosing one pole of the paradox leaves us exposed to the downsides of the other pole. Schools that fully embrace change may burn out their employees. Schools that fully embrace stability may be unable to adapt to a changing community or system.
Adopt a Paradox Mindset
A paradox mindset means considering the world with a “both/and” approach rather than an “either/or”. The paradox mindset suggests an alternative perspective, accepting and learning to live with the tensions associated with competing demands. It is understanding that these competing demands can’t be eliminated.
Adopting a paradox mindset allows us to accept and even embrace tensions as natural and just the way things are sometimes. A paradox mindset pushes us to shift from an either/or mentality to a both/and mentality. Rather than accepting the apparent trade-offs between the different poles of the paradox we challenge them and seek to embrace them. Rather than making decisions about which pole of the paradox to embrace we develop more nuanced decision that helps us to understand when to embrace one or the other pole. For example, rather than always being flexible with your schedule, which leaves no time for planned strategic work we may develop a richer approach when we limit flexibility at times to finish the School Plan or School Report, but let your daily plan retreat at times when someone needs your immediate attention (can’t wait).
Thus rather than emphasising which pole to emphasise overall, we learn to embrace both poles simultaneously and occasionally allow our schools to drift slightly towards one side or the other.
Recognising and learning to manage paradox is a core leadership skill. Great leaders learn how to embrace both poles simultaneously.
Please don’t hesitate to contact me should you have any ideas, questions or comments on WAPPA’s Professional Learning.