Paradoxes in Leadership

Two-thirds of CEOs do not receive any outside advice on their leadership skills

I like to read. A lot. Anything, fiction, biographies, newspapers, all of the magazines I can speed-read while standing in the bookstore, research journals, the sides of cereal boxes; and “too many to count” management, leadership and HR related books throughout my career. Yet, of all of my profession-related reading, one book stands out.  It was not for what it taught me, it was unique because it made me rethink many things that I thought I already knew. The name of the book is Management of the Absurd by Richard Farson, PhD. (1996), a psychologist, professor at Harvard Business School, University Dean and CEO. In an absurd thinking style, we will take the knowledge we already possess and instead of adding more, let’s make it more inclusive, more insightful by turning our thinking upside-down. Appropriate reactions include, acceptance, confusion, or disagreement. After all, this stuff is absurd. Examined below are excerpts from the book.

Embracing Paradox and Absurdity

Remember “Theater of the Absurd?” The moniker became attached to a group of playwrights that questioned traditional theater for oversimplifying and over rationalizing human affairs. They felt that only by recognizing the mystery and absurdity of life, was the dignity of people served.                                  

Paradoxes are seeming absurdities. Our natural inclination is to endeavor to resolve the paradox, to have them become less peculiar, to rationalize them. Ever the contrarian, Farson asks us to become comfortable using paradoxical logic to understand our employees, ourselves and therefore manage better. He regards them as exercises for the mind. 

The Opposite of a Profound Truth Is Also True

Many of our great achievements in every intellectual pursuit are dependent on rational, logical thinkers. Nevertheless, this linear, clear-cut thinking has also limited us. Things are good or bad, true or false, but not both. Yet when confronting a conflict we often say, “well, yes and no”, or, “it’s a little bit of both.” A healthy organization needs full and accurate information. However, to be truly healthy, it needs some degree of communication distortion and deception (or if you prefer: diplomacy and tact). In addition, consider the “filtering” of information, up and down, at which middle managers must excel. Every deal is both good and bad. That is why leadership is essentially the management of dilemmas, tolerance for ambiguity, coping with contradictions and understanding, valuing, and accepting, the coexistence of opposites.

Nothing Is as Invisible as the Obvious

Many important discoveries, artistic creations, and the best management decisions come from taking a fresh look at what people take for granted or cannot see precisely, because they are too obvious and become invisible. (A spy’s advice: hide in plain sight).  The invisible obvious (forest for the trees) is a major factor in why the prediction of future trends is particularly challenging. A prediction relies heavily on knowledge of current conditions. Except that, present conditions are largely invisible even to those who spend their lives looking at them. A dramatic example from Farson: About thirty years ago, he was a speaker at a conference of two thousand women, under the theme of “What is Today’s Woman’s Future?” He suddenly noticed that all of the speakers were MEN. It occurred to him that the reverse situation would never occur. This striking example of the attitudes toward women opened his eyes. What he and the others had all been blind to was now painfully obvious.

Effective Managers Are Not in Control

Management based on control and manipulation cannot succeed in matters of the absurd. It is not suggested that managers fail to act, exercise their authority, or follow their own good judgment. What people need to know is, they are dealing with a genuine person, not someone who is only managing them. Management’s strength should be in other qualities — passion, sensitivity, tenacity, patience, courage, vulnerability, firmness, enthusiasm, wonder.

Most Problems That People Have Are Not Problems

You can solve a problem; you can only cope with a predicament. A problem is created by a mistake, something going wrong. When we find the cause, we can correct it. A predicament, paradoxically, is more likely to be created by conditions that we highly value. Most of the important areas of our life, such as marriage and child rearing, are complicated inescapable dilemmas-predicaments where no choices look very good or better than other choices. Hence, the need for coping skills. In the workplace, senior leaders face predicaments much more often than problems.

This incredible book is filled with many more such examples. Some will confuse you, enlighten you, or anger you because of your strong disagreement with his ideas. However, they will all make you think upside down and maybe differently.

William Kreider is the founder and CEO of HR Future Group, a firm that offers a full service suite of human capital management services for all sizes & types of businesses. From Transformational HR, Talent Management, Executive and Organizational Coaching, Leadership Development, Outsourcing, Compensation, Talent Acquisition and other HCM consulting services to Cloud-based Payroll, HRIS, Time & Attendance, and Benefit Administration, HR Future can assist your business. Mr. Kreider has significant executive experience in all areas within the HR profession in a variety of industries.  For more information, please email him at or call 610.584.2467.