Your Best Leadership Self Starts with a Paradox Mindset

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A wealth of studies prove that female leaders are more likely than their male counterparts to face the need to be “warm and nice” (the traits society traditionally expects from women) while also being “competent and tough” (what society traditionally expects of leaders). This can create what has become known as a ‘double bind’ for women leaders, since those qualities are often seen as opposites.

This is our social programming. Leadership is still associated (by men and women) with masculine traits. These biases mean the same behaviours in men and women are not judged in the same way. Instead, men and women leaders and managers are held to different standards.

The ‘double bind’ theory evolves neatly into paradox theory. A paradox is an interwoven contradiction. According to an HBR article published late 2018, female leaders are subject to four paradoxes in the workplace. They must be:

  • Demanding yet caring
  • Authoritative yet participative
  • Advocating for themselves yet serving others
  • Maintaining distance yet being approachable

Societal expectations (millennia in the making) are at odds with what it means to be a woman in a leadership position. The expectations around what leadership looks like must change and will change. Until they do, female leaders need to find ways to navigate these tensions.

I believe it is precisely through the presence of opposites and the feelings they occasion that the great man—the bow with great tension—develops. Friedrich Nietzsche. Click To Tweet

It is not a Lack of Anything

Women are told they are not as confident. They don’t speak up. They don’t ask. The fact is that women do ask and they don’t get. Research shows that their confidence and ambition diminishes the longer they are in organisations. Women are told about the importance of visibility and to get on out there and yet self-promotion is not viewed as a positive trait in women. Their mistakes are judged more harshly and they are penalized for boasting. Bossy, aggressive and sharp- elbowed or really nice but too soft and not really up to it.

How do women leaders navigate these competing expectations, these paradoxes in a world where women’s expertise and behaviour are judged differently to men’s’? How do we make sure we are not paralysed by these either/or dilemmas? Click To Tweet

The Path to Leadership for Women

While men have a relatively clear path to leadership, obviously not without its challenges, women face a labyrinth of competing and mixed messages if they want to progress. These paradoxes get more and more extreme the more senior women become, as their representation at senior leadership levels gets smaller while the expectations of masculine ‘leader-like’ behaviour gets bigger.

Many women will see this as a personal affront, the unfortunate truth is that it is systemic, not personal. No one is intentionally trying to limit your life or your career. It is not about you doing something wrong which just shuts down our learning mind-set. It is a phenomenon most women experience and it is something we need to learn to work with and around if we want to make a difference. Neither is it about learning to fit in or doing some remedial work on your deficits. There isn’t anything wrong with you, so to begin with we need to shut that voice up.

It is also the case that most organisations are working hard on getting rid of the stereotypes and biases that get in the way of everyone feeling included and able to contribute. My view is however – knowing how long systems take to change – if we wait for the playing field to level, amazing women will miss out on important opportunities to make a difference.

Knowledge is Power

First of all, knowledge is power. When we know why and how we need to navigate, we move from a dilemma mindset to a paradox mindset. As executives, we have never needed to use our paradox mindset as much as we do in organisations today – bigger goals AND fewer resources; social justice AND economic efficiency; global AND local… So, consider working on the paradox you live with as women leaders as brilliant practice, as building a leadership muscle that delivers a superior leadership capability.

A paradox mindset is one of the most important skills for any leader today. You are building your advantage. This crooked road only makes us stronger CEOs in the end. Click To Tweet

It’s a tall order, but it creates strong, competent leaders with mind-sets and skill-sets that make you a formidable force to be reckoned with. Well equipped for the world we lead today. That is, if you can build your paradox mindset.

Moving from a Dilemma mindset to a Paradox mindset

When women in leadership positions shift from a dilemma mindset (“look what’s facing me, it’s either/or, I can’t figure this out”) to a paradox mindset (“there’s a problem here, I’ll refuse a trade-off, I know how to do both/and”), the entire world opens up. The corporate environment needs this paradox mindset desperately, and female leaders are the ones who will ultimately introduce it. Because we live the paradox mindset.

Often, women who want to progress are given murky feedback about their impact and wonder why they ‘don’t fit’ – they are often suggested to act more masculine or more feminine. Those approaches rarely work. In fact, the best approach is a subtler one – one that is not nearly as one-sided. Trust me – I have no interest in helping women become male clones. You know those who have mastered a paradox mind-set when you see it, women leaders who are comfortable in their own skin, warm, competent, engaging and authoritative. I have never found one who said it came naturally. They all had to bring insight and intention to it.

Learning to navigate the labyrinth does not make us victims or make us entitled. Rather, it requires us to ask what is going on out there in the world of bias and stereotypes, and what is going on in here, in myself.  Learning how to have a paradox mindset, to change our frame of reference, is a huge advantage in the modern workplace. Paradox thinking is not either/or thinking. It is not about duality. It’s not a zero-sum game, quite the opposite it assumes abundance. And it’s what every organisation needs now in our complex, contradictory world.


You might be interested in my podcast episode with Marianne Lewis Dean of Cass Business School London on her work on paradoxes. Click here to listen.

As always thanks for reading this and sharing it. Feel free to read more on my blog page.

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