Leadership Paradox Theory

Written by Professor Alf Rehn & Curated by Toby Turner

In his work on Leadership Paradox Theory, management speaker Alf Rehn has tried to find out why there is no perfect recipe for leadership. Curious to hear more, Toby Turner quizzed Alf on where the contradictions lie (there’s a bio and link at the bottom if you’re wondering who Alf is).

Why is there such contradiction over who and what makes a great leader – are we overthinking it? 

I believe it’s because we can’t decide deep down what we want from our leaders, hence my curiosity and theory around Leadership Paradoxes. Inevitably we contradict ourselves trying to ‘have it all’, and to some extent we do overthink it, yes. But to understand why, we need to trace back to one of the earliest forms of leadership theory, called Traits Theory. It attempted to describe good leadership through a set of traits that all good leaders should have. It claimed these should include characteristics and skills such as an analytical mind, a strong sense of ethics, and a capacity for decision-making. However, as academics started to compile lists with all the traits a leader should have, something peculiar happened … we ended up with a set of complex contradictions.

Is the biggest leadership paradox between Traditional Leadership and what is now popularised as Contemporary Leadership? 

Yes collectively there is, but even individually there are paradoxes and contradictions. Here’s an example: so we all agree that leading is fundamentally about doing, right? So, a leader should be capable of taking action. We also agree that a leader must be able to listen to, and engage, his or her people – for no one wants to be led by a bully. Now, if we agree a leader should be able to listen (which takes time), and yet make decisions quickly, surely we are essentially contradicting ourselves? In my work with leaders, this problem of paradoxical demands is so evident, it has become one of the key defining characteristics of leadership.

Can you share a few of the contradictions you’ve found in leadership paradoxes? 

First there are the ways we expect leaders to be and behave. We want leaders to always appear rational and analytic, but at the same time to be able to show their feelings and be in tune with their emotions. We expect them to change with the times, yet not seem flighty and to have gravitas. Leaders obviously need to show some traditionally masculine sides, like being tough and hard-nosed when needed, and yet we also insist that they be in touch with their softer, assumedly more feminine side. No wonder that a leader can get flustered and confused, and I’ve managed to get enough data to developer Leadership Paradox Theory!

That’s only behaviour. When it comes to action, we expect leaders to be able to act fast, yet know when to take things slowly. We want action-focused leaders, taking charge right now, but simultaneously we’re asking for them to be visionaries and to be able to conjure up a beautiful dream for the organisation.

Leaders should obviously take care of the big issues and the big picture, but woe unto the leader that doesn’t pay attention to the little things as well. Then there is an expectation that the leader is the one who decides and supervises, yet we demand that they show a lot of trust and focus on enabling instead! If there is a crisis, the leader needs to react immediately, unless he or she shouldn’t, but wait things out instead, and whilst doing that remains capable of dealing with the difficult matters and still keep things simple. As one of the CEO’s I’ve worked with put it, it’s like a recipe for developing dissociative identity disorder…

It’s easy to understand, on one level. Who among us doesn’t want to have a heroic leader who simultaneously is just one of the gang? A visible leader who can melt into the background when needed? We all do. We want that leader who both sets clear boundaries, yet breaks barriers with ease. The one who lives in the now, here, today, yet always with an eye on the future. Heck, I’d love one of those! But at the same time, leaders can often find themselves in quite the pickle with these paradoxical demands. The demands won’t go anywhere, of course. That’s why leaders need to understand these contradictions, and find they own way to live with them.

With so many demands on today’s leaders, it seems no matter what you do, someone will be unhappy. Do you think that truly great leadership is unreachable?

No, I think great leadership is within our reach. I’ve worked with great leaders who have each been brilliant at living with their contradictions. They find their own way through them – I’m sure you’ve seen the same in your search work. They are leaders who realise no one can reach perfection. They understand this is true for themselves and for their rivals. You cannot be all things to all men (and women). What you have is an endless series of paradoxes and conflicts, as well as many, many failures, and yet to be a leader is to power through this.

So where does that leave contemporary leadership – is it indefinable?

Good question! Well, there will never be a perfect list, one that in five catchy lines captures everything a leader should do and be, and if any consultants or ‘experts’ suggest they have found them, run a mile! But real leaders are comfortable with this; they encounter contradictions and solve them best they can. They’re asked to do the impossible and somehow, often rather frequently, manage to do just so.

This article is featured in our full report A Very Modern Leader: Contemporary Leadership In Real Estate & Construction which you can download by clicking the link. 


Alf Rehn is a Finnish Professor of Innovation, Design, and Management at the University of Southern Denmark, and a visiting professor at Cass Business School. Known for his down-to-earth, no-nonsense views on innovation, he sits on numerous boards and is a strategic advisor to both start-ups and heavyweights from the Fortune 500. He is a bestselling business author who has been named as one “the 30 management thinkers most likely to shape the future” on the 2016 Guru Radar, curated by the prestigious management organisation, Thinkers50 

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