Paradoxical leadership: a virtue of innovative leaders?

In today’s rapidly changing business environment, businesses need innovative leaders who understand the importance of paradoxical leadership in reconciling conflicts and contradictions in the modern workplace

This article is republished with permission from China Business Knowledge, the knowledge platform of Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School. You may access the original article here.

History is littered with the names of once-dominant companies that were so focused on the success of their core business that they failed to embrace innovative new ideas until it was too late. But introducing change can be difficult in modern organisations, as it typically involves dealing with contradictory requirements that often generate conflict. 

To innovate, companies need to think “outside of the box” in their search for new ideas, while at the same time staying focused on outcomes and maintaining efficiency in order to turn their ideas into reality. It is not uncommon for teams charged with coming up with innovative solutions to have to deal with “paradoxical” tensions that limit their ability to execute, such as tight deadlines and limited resources. However, a new study, co-authored by researchers from The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), shows the ability to lead teams and individuals despite the existence of contradictory tensions could be the key to organisational success in today’s rapidly changing business environment.

Consider America’s Eastman Kodak, one of the 20th century’s major photography brands, known around the world for its ubiquitous Kodak film rolls. Yet it was forced to file for bankruptcy protection in 2012 after short-sighted senior managers left it too late to enter digital age markets. Nokia, the Finnish telecommunications company that was once the world’s largest mobile phone handset maker, also failed to adapt to innovation, notably the threat to its keypad-based products from touchscreen smartphones following the 2007 launch of Apple’s iPhone and later sold off its struggling handset business.

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A new study suggests paradoxical leadership may be the key to organisational success in today’s rapidly changing business environment. Image: Shutterstock

The devastating effects and continuing global economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic – and the success of businesses that have quickly adapted to the “new normal” – reinforce the importance of businesses adopting what this group of researchers has called “paradoxical leadership” practices to stay innovative and to ensure competitiveness and survival.

Innovation inevitably sparks paradoxical conflict

Kenneth Law, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Management at CUHK Business School and co-author of a timely new study, says paradoxical leadership involves managers recognising the contradicting tensions generated by the competing demands placed on teams and individuals in innovative organisations and adopting a dynamic approach to manage the creative process.

Prof. Law and his two co-researchers, Prof. Melody Jun Zhang of CUHK and Prof. Zhang Yan of Peking University have published their findings in Paradoxical Leadership and Innovation in Work Teams: The Multilevel Mediating Role of Ambidexterity and Leader Vision as a Boundary Condition. The paper offers useful business insights by looking closely at how such leaders effectively overcome paradoxical tensions at “ambidextrous” organisations – those companies that successfully manage not only innovative exploratory activities, such as discovering, experimenting and searching for alternatives but also its traditional, exploitative business interests, such as refining, executing and recombining existing knowledge and abilities.

“This new research expands our understanding of how to enhance workplace innovation through leadership practices,” Prof. Law says. “We were able to show how paradoxical leadership can promote both team and individual ambidexterity – particularly when the leader can communicate a strong and clear vision.”

Up to 1,169 staff working in teams at 12 companies in northern China and 312 other team workers at different Western companies – focused mostly in innovative fields, such as the research and development of new products or services in the media, software, information and medical technology industries – took part in the research. They answered questions in three studies, all carried out at three different times over a six-week period, which saw team members ranked on their innovative ability and team leaders on their paradoxical leadership skills.

To leverage paradoxical leadership, the research shows leaders should seek to treat all team members equally in a fair and impartial way, while considering the specific needs of individuals and, if necessary, sometimes make exceptions. The study shows paradoxical leadership can help to settle differences that arise while promoting innovative solutions. Prof. Law says team leaders with a strong understanding of paradoxical leadership are able to grasp two conflicting ideas – such as maintaining control while allowing people the freedom to work independently – and then integrate them into their plans.

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Paradoxical leadership can promote both team and individual ambidexterity – particularly when the leader can communicate a strong and clear vision. Image: Shutterstock

Team leaders and middle managers also play an essential role in explaining a company’s vision and direction to staff, so the way they communicate their ideas can significantly influence the effectiveness of their leadership. For example, the research shows that the success of paradoxical management depends on leaders communicating a clear, forward-looking vision so that team members can understand “the big picture”. But companies also need to help team leaders provide clear ideas to staff so they do not lose sight of objectives and fully understand the thinking behind paradoxical leadership. 

“Our findings show paradoxical leadership is a driving force in helping both individuals and teams to address the contradictory demands involved in the innovation process,” says Prof. Law. “To achieve sustained success in today’s volatile environments, we recommend leaders think paradoxically and act integratively.”

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Training in paradoxical leadership could help leaders resolve common workplace issues like ensuring flexibility while still enforcing clear work requirements. Image: Shutterstock

Fostering business ambidexterity

Prof. Law says the new research is valuable to businesses because it offers a greater understanding of leadership in teams operating in complex and volatile business environments. It reveals not only what types of leadership behaviour promote innovation through enhancing the ambidexterity of individuals and teams – but also when they do so. Managers, especially those leading work teams focused on providing new business solutions, should consider adopting paradoxical leadership principles and behaviours to foster greater business ambidexterity and innovation.

Prof. Law recommends organisations look to provide paradoxical leadership training to team leaders to help them to master a two-sided approach to resolve common paradoxes, such as ensuring flexibility while still enforcing clear work requirements and maintaining personal control of outputs while granting individuals the freedom to work independently without outside influence. In addition, he says the research clearly shows that ambidexterity improves innovation – both among individuals and within teams – and will be of particular use for companies built on innovative products and services, such as hi-tech enterprises and young start-ups, which may have a particularly strong need for ambidextrous work teams.

Read more: Juliet Bourke on harnessing the power of diversity for innovation

“Not all teams can provide high-quality innovative solutions, sometimes because they fail to move forward with their initial ideas, or try to implement things too quickly,” Prof. Law says. “But if businesses want to be successful, they need to provide training that helps to encourage teams and individuals to put an equal emphasis on innovative exploratory activities and traditional, exploitative business interests, and nurture paradoxical leadership and ambidexterity within the company.”

One limitation of the new research is that it asked leaders to rank team innovation across various industries, rather than getting them to measure it objectively. Future research could consider incorporating specific ways to measure team innovation to increase the robustness of the findings. Further studies could also consider and identify whether – and when – company ambidexterity is beneficial or undesirable for teams and individuals. It will also be worth examining the different forms of ambidexterity in innovative teams, with some members tasked with developing novel ideas, for example, while others will focus on the feasibility and application of these new ideas, concludes Prof. Law.


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