Six Paradoxes of Leadership in a Crisis: Even more true now

by cv harquail on April 6, 2009

“The most threatening circumstances can be experienced as the most highly motivating if, and this is a very big if, the purposes which we serve feel significant enough to the organization’s members.”

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Looking over research on “leadership during crisis”, I was reading the report “Raising The Stakes or Finally Seeing Them Clearly?: Balanced Leadership in Times of Economic Crisis, by Jusela, Wiggenhorn, & Gentile.

(The report can be downloaded at the Aspen Institute website.)

Balanced Leadership… is a call for us to rethink what leadership can be and business can do.

This report answers the big picture questions behind the arguments that MBAs had a big role in creating the financial mess and that business schools were also at fault for creating narrowly focused leaders. Our current economic crisis has made more of us aware of 6 Paradoxes of Leadership, argue Jusela, Wiggenhorn, & Gentile. If we confront these leadership paradoxes head on, whatever actions leaders choose will be more effective.Aspen Institute logo.jpeg

In their introduction to the paradoxes, Jusela, Wiggenhorn, & Gentile capture all the dimensions of our current situation nationally and globally:

– the steep and punishing plunge of the market,
– the permanent disappearance of wealth,
– the crushing of our confidence in out economic system,
– a sense of trauma that is breeding helplessness,
– relentless bad news,
– pessimism, and
– the debilitating skepticism towards proposed solutions. 

You’ve been living this too, so you can recognize how apt their description is of our current economic situation and the crisis of leadership we’re experiencing right now.

Except that the report was written in 2002. Seven years ago.

When I actually realized that this report was about some other economic crisis, I shivered in the chill of ‘deja vu all over again.’ Not only was the description of the economic situation familiar, but also the leadership vacuum was the same then as it seems to be now. Not much at all has changed, not even the questions. As the prescient authors clarified:

With all of this sturm and drang over the economic downturn, the role and even the significance of the business leader seems less than clear. What can individual leaders, or even teams of managers who understand the concept of collective leadership do, in the face of such a debacle?

If we choose to see them, the true stakes of corporate leadership are being revealed and the true responsibilities and functions of corporate leaders are being defined, (emphasis mine) even as the impacts on all stakeholders are heightened by economic upheaval. Through a series of apparent leadership paradoxes, the clarity of vision made possible in such times can be examined.

With insight and wisdom seldom seen even in leadership tomes, Jusela, Wiggenhorn, & Gentile identify these paradoxes of leadership during crisis, and then discuss leaders’ possible responses to these paradoxes. Their full discussion is worth the time it might take you to read the whole 10-page report, and the report can be printed out to share with colleagues.

To give you a quick overview of these paradoxes and perhaps pique your curiosity, I’ve excerpted the Six Paradoxes and clipped a tiny bit of the discussion, below.

Paradox One: Crisis can ‘raise some stakes’ for organizational leaders at the same time as it relieves them of others.mike perry.jpg

Some managers may be predisposed to define their role and responsibilities widely and to balance both long and short- term objectives anyway. For these folks, a crisis is just another situation to which they bring their own hard-wired personal predilections. And there are others who are shaken awake by crises, who find that when the stakes get higher and widely felt, their own needs and concerns appear small and unimportant, and they feel “freed up” and motivated by that realization. They cease to find that their investments keep them warm at night and they look to a deeper, broader source of meaning and comfort. The impacts of leadership are often greater and more far reaching in times of crisis, for other members of the organization are hungry for direction and hope.

If we choose to see them, the true stakes of corporate leadership are being revealed and the true responsibilities and functions of corporate leaders are being defined, even as the impacts on all stakeholders are heightened by economic upheaval. Through a series of apparent “leadership paradoxes,” the clarity of vision made possible in such times can be examined.

Paradox Two: Crisis makes the true “extent and limits”of our control over circumstances palpably and sometimes painfully plain.

Although focus and realism are virtues, the greatest power can sometimes be found in accepting the responsibility for, ”and therefore consciously addressing”our impacts, whether they were part of the espoused strategy or not.

Paradox Three: Times of crisis often require us to act quickly, with even less data and certainty than usual, and yet they are times when our receptivity to more information from wider and less common sources is critical.

… So at the very time when we are tempted to circle the wagons and listen to our own counsel exclusively, it becomes important to look for new voices, new perspectives…. The new approach, the paradigm shifting perspective, the reframing of a problem which reveals heretofore unrecognized possibilities often comes from the most unlikely or marginalized sources, the scouts out there on the frontier of an organization’s influence.

Paradox Four: At a time when knowing what to say feels most difficult, not speaking is most dangerous.

The challenge for a leader in such circumstances is to really believe in those corporate value statements about integrity. … And it is a kind of emotional integrity, as well as intellectual integrity, which becomes so essential. This means naming the mistakes, as well as the successes, being willing to say “we screwed up and here is what we are going to do about it.”

Paradox Five: At a time when speed of action is necessary for survival, one of the most important priorities is reflection.

Or put another way, when everyone is focused on surviving the present moment, one must take the time to look to the future. ..The irony is that taking a larger, broader, longer view can actually place the present into perspective.

Paradox Six: While focused on “rallying the troops” during a crisis, leaders must often be making the unpopular decisions.three way street sign.jpg

(In times of crisis) (t)he temptation… is to consult less … in the misguided hope that we will therefore disappoint less. Perhaps the more honest rationale for this impetus is that we are tempted to consult less so that we may be less aware of who and how often we actually do disappoint our constituencies.

So how do we teach future managers and leaders how to address these paradoxes? How do we coach colleagues and executives as they face these paradoxes right now?

Jusela, Wiggenhorn, & Gentile have a few suggestions:

  1. Free managers to define their purpose in terms that exceed personal or even organizational economics
  2. Encourage leaders to see the range of stakeholders to whom they have an obligation and from whom they can learn
  3. Enable managers to develop the communication skills and the personal comfort with truth-telling under all conditions, and
  4. Invite leaders to think of their legacy, over years rather than quarters

These skills, they argue, are the way to create real leaders for times of crisis as well as calm.


Number Six by Mike Perry. (See his exhibit The Patterns Found In Space, at GiantRobotNewYork, 3/17-4/08/09.)

{ 1 comment }

Susan Colantuono April 11, 2009 at 2:02 pm

As Henry Mintzberg argues in Managers not MBAs, MBA programs don’t develop leaders, they create financial analysts… Again we are suffering the consequences.

There is a catastrophic misunderstanding in the language of biz schools. Instead of defining leadership in a prescriptive or aspirational way they use the word leader as synonymous with senior executive/CEO. One of the ways I define leadership is this: Leadership is using the greatness in you to achieve extraordinary and sustainable outcomes by engaging the greatness in others.” Clearly not all CEOs and other executives live up to this definition.

Leaders didn’t get us into this mess (or the covered in the study)…executives who weren’t leaders did!

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