6 Paradoxes of a Leader

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Paradoxes can be funny like when comedian John Stewart said, “Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn up by religion” or when Yogi Berra said, “Nobody comes here anymore. It’s too crowded.”

Paradoxes can be funny but they can also be very important in framing an effective leadership strategy. Soren Kierkegaard talked about the huge impact paradoxes can have in our thinking when he wrote, “One must not think slightingly of the paradoxical…for the paradox is the source of the thinker’s passion, and the thinker without a paradox is like a lover without feeling: a paltry mediocrity.” 

I love what Danish Physicist and Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr stated about how things begin to move forward when a paradox shows up, “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.” 

Jesus was the ultimate paradoxical leader and turned the religious institutions of his day upside down when he stated “…that a grain of wheat that falls on the ground will never be more than one grain unless it dies. But if it dies, it will produce lots of wheat. If you love your life, you will lose it. If you give it up in this world, you will be given eternal life. If you serve me, you must go with me. My servants will be with me wherever I am. If you serve me, my Father will honor you.” John 12:24-26

Lots of paradoxical statements in those three verses!

To be a paradoxical leader you have to learn to embrace the subordinating conjunction “while”. “While” means 1) at or during same time: at or during the same time that  2) even though: in spite of the fact that.

Here are six paradoxes that every effective leader must face. The question is, how do you live out the “while”?

PARADOX #1 You must be building and recruiting and investing in leaders and getting out of the way, WHILE still being in the trenches.

PARADOX #2 You must be the inspiration, positive, optimistic voice for your team, WHILE making sure you take care of yourself when you are discouraged or drained.

PARADOX #3 You must invest in other people’s gifts and talents, helping to bring out the best in them, WHILE making sure you are growing and stretching and getting better at your gifts and talents.

PARADOX #4 You must do something for a long period of time (consistency) in order to grow an organization that has deep roots, an enduring vision and a sustainable future, WHILE making sure you try new things that allow you to get out of your comfort zone and to experience other passions in your life.

PARADOX #5 You must be a big picture, structure building, org-chart expanding leader, WHILE remembering that the most important part of your life is about close friendships, family and a personal faith.

PARADOX #6 You must never get too high or too low, knowing that leading is a long journey, and that it’s not a sprint but a marathon, WHILE remembering that every moment counts and every encounter is sacred and all you have is the present.

Would love to hear how you live out these paradoxes and what it looks like in your life or organization.

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
― Carl R. Rogers

5 Attributes of Successful Non-Profit Leaders

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1. They have a clear, uncompromising, passionate vision about what their organization is about.

Successful leaders make sure that they are the voice and keeper of the vision.

As Pastor Bill Hybels once stated “Vision leaks.” People who are in the trenches working heroically, fighting injustice, serving the underprivileged and defending the marginalized can become tired and discouraged and forget the overall vision of why they are there and why the organization exists.

When we are tired or discouraged, vision will seep out of us and fear and compromise will creep into us.

THE most important job as a leader is to keep the vision clear and find ways through celebratory stories, inspiring teachings, consistent systems and personal examples to remind people why they are there.

I call this “Creative Redundancy”.

One of the most effective tools for fundraising for non-profits is a clear vision. Resources flow out of  vision.

Successful leaders do this.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” —Proverbs 29:18

2. They leave managing things to others and they focus their time investing in, recruiting and leading people.

People are the most important commodity of any organization and especially a non-profit organization.

This is a fundamental philosophy that every leader must adhere to.

The strength of your people = The effectiveness of your organization.

Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, a WWII hero, observed, “You manage things; you lead people.”

With all the demands of details, tasks and systems, leaders must make sure that the majority of their time is in growing people towards their greatest potential.

Great organizations have great people and great people will give their best and will commit to the long haul not because of pay or perfect systems, but because the vision is clear and because they feel invested in and valued.

3. They are suspicious of success and keep the organization grateful, humble and optimistically dissatisfied.

Short term success has killed more organizations than short term failure. One of the biggest responsibilities of a leader is to help his/her organization navigate success.

Success can make us sloppy with budgets, overestimate our abilities and comfortable with the status quo.

Successful leaders learn how to celebrate wins while reminding people that pending successes are not guaranteed and that humility and gratefulness lead to a sustainable, winning future.

Successful leaders learn to create a sustainable discord where victories are celebrated but the tension of uncompleted goals propel the organization forward.

4. They understand that talk is cheap and clearly defined results are the measure of success.

U.S.C. professor and leadership guru Warren Bennis says it very succinctly, “Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality.”

Bottom line: If vision isn’t becoming reality, successful leaders take full ownership of the problem and spend sleepless nights trying to figure out how to make effective changes.

Mediocre leaders justify, compromise, pass the blame and learn to live with a lack of urgency  that infects those they are leading.

One of the most important things successful leaders do is they clearly define what organizational success is and then they evaluate their successes accordingly. This takes deep conviction and confidence in themselves to say, “I have failed, I can do better.”

Successful leaders live deeply rooted in reality while striving for and reaching for idealism.

5. They sacrifice ego to empower those they are leading to greatness, thus making the organization stronger and more sustainable.

Successful leaders learn to navigate the difficult transition from top down leadership to servant leadership.

Servant leadership involves making sure people are working in their strengths and passions.

Servant leadership involves helping people grow holistically.

Servant leadership involves allowing others to get credit while remaining quietly in the background.

Servant leadership involves collaboration, humility, inner strength, less fame and a commitment to a greater cause.

When servant leaders retire, their organizations usually transition well because values are deep, vision is clear, and structure is sustainable because it was not built on one person or one personality.

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” —Jack Welch

“The job of love is to help someone realize their potential.” Bono

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.” Max DePree