10Navigating Paradoxes*

Wendy K. Smith and Marianne W. Lewis

What keeps leaders up at night? This question animated research by Oxford Saïd Business School professors Michael Smets, Tim Morris, and others in partnership with executive talent firm Heidrick & Struggles. To understand the challenges of contemporary leaders, they interviewed 150 CEOs from around the world. Their key finding? Paradoxes.

The CEOs struggled with ongoing tugs‐of‐war between irresolvable competing demands such as those between adapting to ongoing change and staying focused on the organization's core mission; leveraging global trends and scale while serving and competing in their local marketplaces; and achieving profits while addressing broader environmental and social concerns. Each issue the researchers identified had, at its core, a paradox. They state:

Faced with competing, yet equally valid, stakeholder demands, CEOs increasingly face paradoxical situations of choosing between ‘right … and right.’ To get the ‘best of both worlds,’ CEOs need to first balance their personal paradoxes so they can find balance for their companies.

At their core, paradoxes juxtapose tensions, inviting leaders to move forward while dancing between opposing poles. They demand a move from traditional, binary thinking toward a more holistic, dynamic approach.

Expecting leaders to embrace paradox and thrive in uncertainty raises a pressing question: How? It's one thing to label experiences as paradoxical and another to ...

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