Leadership paradoxes

Morgen Witzel
Richard Bolden
Nigel Linacre

Paradox n. a seemingly absurd though perhaps well-founded statement; self-contradictory or essentially absurd statement; person or thing conflicting with pre-conceived notions of what is reasonable or possible.

Oxford English Dictionary

Why this volume?

Seven years ago, leadership scholar Keith Grint (2006) estimated that there were 20,000 books on leadership in print. That number will only have grown in the intervening years. If we add to this the tens of thousands of articles and essays – including, of course, those in this volume – then we are faced with a truly colossal body of literature and ideas, far more than any one person can master. Do we really need yet more writing on leadership to add to the mountain that already exists?

And yet, when we look at that mountain, we are perplexed not just by its size but by its opaqueness. It is a truism to state that there is no universally agreed definition of leadership. Put twenty leadership scholars and practitioners into a room and ask them to define the concept, and you will probably get twenty-two definitions (at least two will change their mind during the course of the discussion). How can it be that such a vast body of work has been produced on a subject that no one can define? Is there any other subject (apart from perhaps religion) where so much discussion had produced so little illumination?

What more can usefully be said about leadership?

We believe the answer to the first question is yes: there is a still a great deal that can usefully be said about leadership. But we doubt whether attempts to define leadership will ever amount to very much. Leadership is by its nature vague, fuzzy and uncertain. To the annoyance of scientists, it cannot be measured or quantified (at least not in a way that offers practical value for anyone other than the scientists doing the measuring). Leadership, however defined, has a direct impact on organisations and societies; apart from that, we can’t say too much else with certainty. To describe what constitutes leadership and how it works is a little like photographing a kaleidoscope; no matter how accurate your vision at that place and time, within a few moments the picture will have changed.

In this special issue of e-O&P we suggest that, if we are to fully understand the fluidity and dynamism of leadership, we need to accept that leadership is full of paradoxes. In the West we are not generally very good at dealing with paradox (East Asian cultures tend to cope rather better) and, upon being confronted with a paradox, our impulse is usually to try to ‘resolve’ it, to render down the conflicting statements so that they agree and the apparent contradiction dissolves. But this is to mistake the nature of paradoxes. They are not puzzles to be solved or opposites that can be reconciled. They simply are. Rather than dissecting them, we need to learn to accept them as wholes, to learn to live with them and perhaps even to embrace them.

The writer and naval officer Stephen King-Hall (1927) once remarked that any statement made about China is both true and, simultaneously, not true. His point was that China is a complex place and cannot be described in simple statements. This is still true today. We can say, for example, that China is an economic superpower (it is the world’s second largest economy) and that China is a developing economy (one in six of its population live in absolute poverty). Both statements are correct (and to take King-Hall’s point, both are therefore incorrect). It might be possible to reconcile these differences to come up with a single agreeable statement, but in so doing, a great deal of richness of understanding would be lost. Recognising this paradox is key to understanding what makes China what it is.

So it is with leadership. We can think of leadership in so many ways. Leaders can be autocrats who rule through command and control, or they can servants of the organisation who put its interests before their own. They may be lofty and above the organisation, or they may be in close communion with their followers. Leadership can be a role that people adopt in order to be more effective, or it can be ‘authentic’, drawing up on people’s own hearts and souls. It can be an exercise in democracy, or a road to tyranny.

Accepting and considering paradoxes

Among those 20,000-plus books, we find that a very great many are devoted to advancing one statement and promoting this as the best model of leadership, the ‘one best way’ of leading. A few even offer ‘proof’ that this is so. But what if we were to accept that in each pair of statements, both are true? What, indeed, if we were to accept that all of these statements about leadership (and many others) are simultaneously true – and not true? What would this do to our understanding of leadership?

One of the reasons why taking this position makes us uncomfortable is that, as the Oxford English Dictionary says, paradoxes are things that conflict with our pre-conceived notions of what is real or possible. We all have pre-conceptions, and very often we find it hard to put them aside. But that is just what accepting paradox does: it requires us to look beyond what we think we already know, and see the world differently. It requires us to consider that, to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, the improbable may turn out to be the most reasonable explanation.

We ask therefore that, whilst reading the articles in this issue, you set aside your pre-conceptions and consider the paradoxes we offer. We don’t ask you to accept everything we say at face value; we certainly don’t expect you to! Our hope, however, is that by considering these paradoxes, you will re-examine some of your own ideas and assumptions about leadership and perhaps alter or amend them; and, in the absence of a universally agreed definition of leadership, that is certainly a good place to start.

The articles in this issue fall into four related groups.  Respectively, they concern a paradox in attitudes towards leadership; paradoxes in the practice of leadership; paradoxes in leadership attribution and reward; and paradoxes in leadership education and development.  In the following paragraphs, we offer a flavour of each contributor’s perspectives on such issues.

A paradox at the very heart of leadership

First of all, there are paradoxes in the ways we think about and define leadership. In the first article, Morgen Witzel suggests that there is a paradox at the very heart of leadership. It is generally accepted that people need leaders, but do they want them? This article argues that there is a tension inherent in our attitude to leadership, and that even as we accept the control that leaders have over us we also kick back against it and try to assert our own control as followers.

Paradoxes in the practice of leadership

These paradoxes of understanding lead in turn to paradoxes in the practice of leadership. John Lawler and Jeff Gold propose that most leaders don’t really understand how leadership works, and do not recognise their own lack of control. They refer to this as the ‘leadership conundrum’ and call on leaders to find ways of seeing through the ‘fog’ in which they operate. Taking a systemic perspective, in which leaders develop an awareness of the complex network of relationships through which they work, they argue, can enhance the potential for influence.

Following on from this, Nigel Linacre suggests that leaders are also caught in a spatial and temporal paradox that requires them to be both ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’. Leaders must be part of the group; but at the same time, their status as leaders sets them apart. And leaders must manage in the present; but at the same time, they must also think constantly about the future.

Finally, Jennifer Board considers the idea of moral courage, seen as essential to leadership, and asks whether this is always true. There may be times when moral courage requires leaders to turn a blind eye to ‘wrong’ in order to achieve the ‘right’ result. She cautions that while necessary, these kinds of judgement can also be dangerous; taking the position that the end justified the means can, over time, be morally corrosive.

Paradoxes of leadership attribution and reward

There are also paradoxes in how we recognise, attribute and reward leadership. Scott Allison and Jefferson Cann take two different perspectives on the idea of heroic leadership.

Scott describes the often paradoxical ways in which we create heroes, and notes that while we all agree on the idea of heroism, we usually have quite different ideas about who our heroes are. Strangely, the heroes most people can agree on are characters from fiction. We also tend to ascribe heroic status to people only once they have gone. Thus our only truly heroic leaders are either dead, departed, or never existed at all.

Jefferson notes the traits ascribed to heroic leaders and shows how very few people ever succeed in achieving heroism. Instead, many turn into tyrants. Acknowledging our need for heroes, he suggests instead a kind of ‘post-heroic hero’, a hero who knows his or her limitations and realises the need to work with followers.

To conclude this section, Katie Porkess uses social identity theory to show how leaders succeed by becoming ‘prototypical’ members of their groups, embodying the values, ideals and dreams of the rest of the group. Yet, she argues, in order to lead, leaders have to behave in ways outside of the norms of the group.  Even more paradoxically, they do so with the consent and encouragement of those very members of the group who identify with them most closely. She uses research evidence to demonstrate the risks associated with these identity processes and the potential for the emergence of unethical and corrupt leadership behaviours.

Paradoxes of leadership education and development

Finally we turn to leadership education and development, a field with a whole sub-set of paradoxes of its own. Jonathan Gosling and Peter Case describe the paradoxical mismatch between the perceptions of participants in leadership training, who are often looking for a ‘quick fix’ that will rapidly turn them into better leaders, and programme developers, who offer a ‘slow fix’ development process over time. Rather than taking one position or the other, they argue, programmes should simply concentrate on the ‘fix’ – getting the development needs of the individual right rather than sticking to pre-conceived ideas about the ‘best’ way.

Keith Kinsella looks at the vexing issue of the gap between theory and practice in leadership education, which too often fails to put leadership into context or provide enough richness of experience for participants to make sense of what they are learning. He offers some thoughts on new models of leadership education that embrace paradox rather than attempting to destroy it.

Finally, Inmaculada Adarves-Yorno looks at the paradoxes implicit in the concept of authentic leadership and the challenges this poses for leadership educators. She suggests that the quest for ‘authenticity’ places unrealistic demands on leaders and misses the point that in order to be authentic, leaders must recognise that at times they will behave in-authentically. Developing authentic leadership, she argues, is a journey rather than a destination.

What do you think?

It is our hope that these ten articles will provide useful food for thought and discussion in your own leadership thinking and practice. Needless to say, we look forward to hearing your thoughts, and we hope this is just the beginning of a further and fruitful understanding of leadership paradoxes. Of course, one of the implications of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is that the more we study a subject the less precise our knowledge of it becomes. But maybe this is a case where we need less knowledge, and more understanding.


Grint, Keith (2006) ‘Foreword’, in Jonathan Gosling, Peter Case and Morgen Witzel (eds), John Adair: Fundamentals of Leadership, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

King-Hall, Stephen (1927) China of To-Day, London: Woolf.

Share this article