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Leadership Paradox By Lee Ellis

Christian Leadership Alliance

Three Strategic Tips for Living in the Balance of the Leadership Paradox

By Lee Ellis ~

The temptation is there for all us, but it’s easier to notice in others – “Why do they lead this organization the same old way? And why do they only see life from their myopic view?” The ability to break free from old mindsets and gain new ones is a valuable attribute—especially for leaders who find themselves thrown into paradox.

Leaders Must Operate in Paradox

Consider the challenge when you encounter paradox and have to acknowledge and operate on two seemingly opposite principles from the list below –


Visionary   Practical
Chaos   Order
Results   Relationships
Competitive   Supportive
Detached   Sensitive
Bold   Cautious
Strong   Vulnerable
Leader   Servant
Tough   Compassionate
General   Specialist
Convincing   Good Listener

Can you really be both tough and compassionate? Can you effectively operate with a clear vision of your strategy while working in the day-to-day fog of complexity to achieve your goals?

Living in the Tension of Change and Growth

Leaders must be flexible and open to new mindsets. In this New Year, challenge your mindsets. Often a change in perspective is the only way to employ the wide array of behaviors and skills needed to lead effectively.

Be willing to live in the tension—holding two seemingly opposite concepts at once. Our tendency is to want simplicity. We like to reduce things to right or wrong, good or bad, strong or weak. The reality of life says it’s just not that way. We are at once good and bad, strong and weak. In fact, even the best leaders readily admit that they have major insecurities.

How can you learn to live in the tension and embrace paradox? Three tips –

1. Try a Picture-in-Picture Approach

My friend, Laurie Beth Jones, has a good analogy called the “picture-in-picture” approach. We must learn to keep more than one channel on the screen and be able switch between them. For example, a leader needs to be able to expand the “vision” onto the full screen in order to develop strategy while at the same time keeping the practical details of reality in the smaller background screen, knowing she’ll need to swap pictures again to deal with the here and now.

2. Develop Flexibility

Push yourself to identify old mindsets that really aren’t working. When you notice that your actions don’t seem to bring good results, consider taking a new perspective. As you get older, flexibility gets harder but it’s worth the effort. Share your growth and mentor others to do the same.

3. Remember the Stockdale Paradox

Leaders need resilience in tough times. Our POW leader, CDR James Bond Stockdale, the senior Naval officer in the camps knew a lot about resilience—spending more than four years in solitary confinement, two years in the infamous Alcatraz camp with many rounds of torture.

In his classic Good to Great, Jim Collins talked about his relationship and conversations with Stockdale. From those insights and the quote below Collins coined the term “Stockdale Paradox” that highlights this dynamic tension and Stockdale’s perspective on resilience:

“You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Next Steps

In this New Year, are you willing to open up your mindset and embrace paradox? You may hate the process, but be glad you did. Now that’s kind of a paradox in itself, isn’t it?

Related Resources:


As president of Leadership Freedom® LLC, a leadership and team development consulting and coaching company, Lee Ellis consults with Fortune 500 senior executives in the areas of hiring, teambuilding, human performance, and succession planning. His media appearances include interviews on CNN, CBS This Morning, C-SPAN, ABC World News, and Fox News Channel. A retired Air Force Colonel, his latest book is entitled Engage with Honor: Building a Culture of Courageous Accountability.

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