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July 2014: Living and Leading With Paradoxes

“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,

that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,

that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Declaration of Independence

Adopted July 2, 1776

Exactly 238 years ago, Thomas Jefferson followed his authorship of the above words by calling slavery an “abominable crime.” Yet, he personally owned more than 600 slaves over the course of his lifetime.

Jefferson staunchly believed and widely publicized his opposition to slavery, but he did not insist on abolishing its legality. To do so would have brought to a screeching halt the thriving tobacco-and-cotton culture of the South, trampling Jefferson’s personal wealth and status – and that of his fellow plantation owners.

Do you view Jefferson and his slave-owning co-signers as blatant hypocrites, or as individuals, trying to think their best, while caught in a web of dilemmas framed by economic, social, moral and emotional factors at a particular point in history?

A current exhibit at Philadelphia’s Constitution Center entitled, “Slavery at Monticello” asks, “How does one explain the glaring paradox of the fight for liberty in an era of pervasive slavery?”

Paradoxes in Everyday Life

Jefferson’s apparent double standard – decrying slavery while owning slaves – is not an isolated phenomenon. Paradoxes abound in everyday life, for example:

  • Hundreds of thousands of college graduates complain about a persistent paradox: “We’re told we don’t qualify for a job because of lack of experience, but how are we supposed to get experience without a job?”

  • Pope Francis has said he wants a church that “is poor, and for the poor,” including “the legitimate redistribution of wealth by the state.” Yet bankers best guesses about the Vatican’s wealth put it at $10-15 billion, including big investments in banking, insurance, chemicals, steel, construction and real estate. The Vatican pays no taxes on this income.

  • As civilization has progressed, our propensity to design ever more powerful weapons of mass destruction has risen. How does “more civilized” square with “greater killing capacity?”

  • Most parents today would consider higher education a key to their children’s economic security. Yet some of the most creative and successful minds of our era dropped out of college, were fired from their jobs or were homeless. The list includes Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Howard Stern, David Letterman, Richard Branson, Princess Diana, Elton John, Oprah Winfrey and Walt Disney.

Paradoxes in Leadership

Leaders live amidst paradoxes daily, including the paradox of leadership itself: Can anyone actually be led without their consent, or guided in a direction other than where they have already chosen to go?

Consider additional leadership paradoxes:

  • Self-reliance has historically been cited as evidence of leadership, yet the ability to delegate and the willingness to ask for help have been reported by a wide spectrum of leaders as keys to their effectiveness. (A contemporary Mormon leadership manual puts it like this: “Wise leaders delegate responsibilities to the people they serve because leaders cannot do everything themselves, and because people grow more when they participate.”)

  • Most bosses place a high value on employees who will tell them the truth; yet employees routinely report hesitation about being honest with their bosses. Does the boss-employee relationship, by its very nature, impede candor?

  • How is it that multi-tasking leaders purportedly get more done, yet multi-tasking is widely believed to dilute focus and put efficiency at risk?

  • Leaders devote major investments of time and human capital to strategic planning, yet due to an always-uncertain future, most strategic plans are curbed or thrown out before they get implemented. Does that mean strategic planning is a waste of time?

  • In many organizations, those who sweat and toil more tend to make less. Does this suggest that hard work might not be that important to financial success or high status?

Acknowledging Paradoxes

Paradoxes are more like conundrums than problems with obvious solutions. Recognition and acknowledgment of these sticky contradictions puts a leader’s focus on “seeing” rather than “solving.”

Less than 100 years after the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln used Jefferson’s language to abolish slavery. Should Jefferson be hailed for his brilliance or thrown under the rug for owning slaves?

Paradoxes can often be better understood when viewed from a different context. For example, the multi-tasking enigma cited above is broached by a recent research finding by Dr. Earl Miller a professor of neuroscience at MIT.

Miller says that for the most part, humans simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. What we can do, he said, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.

Miller says people think they’re actually paying attention to everything around them at the same time, but they’re not. They’re just switching from task to task very rapidly. “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” says Miller.

By providing a research context, Miller introduces a twist that shifts the way the multi-tasking paradox is posed.

In spite of the befuddlement they spur, paradoxes invite us into a deeper awareness: that life and leadership are not tidy and neat as we might prefer, but rather complex processes involving endless human variations and often, unpredictable conditions.

As leaders, we might wish to resolve the paradoxes that confound us. But anything that can smuggle more humility into our lives – and keep us on our toes – might prove more valuable than a hundred simplistic solutions.

2 Responses to “July 2014: Living and Leading With Paradoxes”

  1. July 03, 2014 at 4:48 pm, Carl Jensen said:

Thanks for a thoughtful post. It brings to mind the power of systems to resist change, something that Bowen Theory describes well. People need to be understood in terms of their contexts/systems.

Sometimes a small step in one area is the most that a system can absorb, given its level of chronic anxiety. Especially in the social-political realm, change involves building coalitions (where triangles dwell in abundance), with varying points of anxiety, interests, and principles. Thus, “politics is the art of the possible,” though acting on principle may reveal that more change is possible than first appears.

It may be wiser to take that small practical step (hopefully to be followed by other small steps) than to attempt the one large step that would be futile in the near term. Alternatively, sometimes taking the big step that provokes overwhelming resistance is followed by significant change later, in the direction of that big step.

That’s where thoughtful judgment comes in, to discern how big a step to take, based on what principles, dealing with what issues, and when. Then the systems does what the systems does, and one discerns what to do next.

  1. August 05, 2014 at 4:02 pm, Paradoxes of Leadership - Family Business Resourcessaid:

[…] and forced into slavery in Georgia. So it was with renewed interest that I read John Engels’s Living and Leading with Paradoxes. Engels begins by noting the paradox of Thomas Jefferson owning 600 slaves during his lifetime […]

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