The ‘Yin and Yang’ of Modern Leadership: Being Good at Contradiction

Monday, August 3, 2015 - 15:37

Guest post by AIM Senior Research Fellow, Dr Samantha Johnson

‘A leader has to appear consistent.  That doesn’t mean he has to be consistent.’ The complexity of leadership according to wise, 1970s British PM, Jim Callaghan. 

Funny how so much changes over the decades while some fundamentals remain the same.

Leaders despair at the challenges of change, complexity and uncertainty.   Despite rules, processes and structures, nothing today is ‘black and white’ and everything is dependent upon situational requirements.  The ‘Yin-Yang’ of leadership means being ok with the ‘grey’.  It means relinquishing the search for ‘black and white’ and the need for consistency in leadership styles and embracing contradiction and paradox. It means being consistently inconsistent.

For years’ consistency in leadership looked like adopting an appropriate leadership style.  Fifteen years ago Daniel Goleman wrote of six dominant leadership styles: coercive, authoritative, affiliative, democratic, pace setting and coaching.

Although these styles may remain identifiable today, a new study suggests that adopting a single, preferred leadership style may be outdated.  

Today, managers and leaders must be skilled at being contradictory, paradoxical and even ‘ambidextrous’. In other words, explaining contradictory behaviours as ‘either – or’ and situationally relevant is no longer necessary.  What matters today is being holistically and integrative and being comfortable with contradictions.

Consider this philosophically. Being contradictory can be viewed from a traditional Eastern viewpoint or a traditional Western viewpoint.  The Western perspective presents contradiction as opposing forces where people move from one behaviour to another depending on a situation – explaining their contradictions in light of situational requirements.

‘The Eastern view adopts the traditional ‘Yin-Yang’ philosophy which views a world where ‘all universal phenomena are shaped by the integration of two opposite cosmic energies, namely Yin and Yang’. ‘Yin–yang philosophy suggests that, although paradoxes and contradictions are opposing, they are also interdependent and complementary, mutually composing a harmonious whole’. In other words, it’s ok to appear inconsistent or contradictory.

So what does this mean for those of you who lead others along a challenging pathway to organisational success?  Can comfort in contradiction be helpful in leadership or does this simply make it harder? 

Leaders already deal with paradox and contradiction.  They can now take a sigh of relief.  This study gives leaders permission to be contradictory without the suspicion of not being transparent or fair.

Leaders are encouraged to be comfortably contradictory in the following ways:

  1. Combine self-centredness with other-centeredness - Inspire, direct and lead others while sharing rewards and recognition with staff
  2. Maintain both distance and closeness with staff - Be hierarchical with responsibilities while forming close bonds with staff
  3. Treat staff uniformly while allowing for individualisation - Allocate tasks of similar scope and difficulty fairly while giving people task that suit their skills or interests
  4. Enforce work requirements while allowing for flexibility - Enforce agreed behaviours and standards while allowing people to be self-driven, decisive and independent
  5. Maintain decision control while allowing autonomy - Drive, direct and inspire goal achievement while allowing autonomy and individualisation in work approach

Consider this example.  You’ve just directed a staff member to undertake a particular task, with a strict time frame and to a required standard.  This is authoritative. At the same time, you encourage the staff member to adopt a comfortable, personal style of work and to undertake the task in a way that suits them.  This is affiliative.  Here you have a contradiction in your leadership behaviours.  Should you be uncomfortable and justify this paradoxical approach?  If you adopt the Western viewpoint – perhaps.  But if you adopt the Eastern viewpoint and embrace paradox as complementary and holistic, have no shame at all. This is a comfortable contradiction that you could embrace consistently.

The Yin and Yang of leadership, in a nutshell, offers us both good news and bad news for leadership. 

The bad news is that the search for clarity in leadership remains in vain. There are no rules, procedures, clear practices and rigid approaches to leadership. 

Organisations and the people within them are complex and leaders must develop intuitive capability, they must trust their judgement and focus equally on rules and boundaries as well as discretion, judgement and real-time individual needs. ‘Bending the rules’ and trusting judgement and intuition might be the new leadership mantra. 

The good news is that leaders should be comfortable trusting judgement and acting in contradictory ways without fearing that they are doing wrong.  Think ‘yin and yang’ as a leader, allow complexity to be, trust holistic approaches that are paradoxical and remove the boundaries of a clear, single leadership style.

Samantha Johnson is a Principal Consultant and Senior Research Fellow with the Australian Institute of Management Education and Training.  She has 15 years’ experience in management consulting and education, is published and has presented internationally.  She is a Visiting Fellow with the University of New South Wales (Canberra) and a Professional Associate of the University of Canberra.  She holds a PhD in Management.

Reference: Reference: Yan Zhang, David Waldman, Yu-Lanh Han and Xiao-Bei li. Paradoxical Leader Behaviours in People Management: Antecedents and Consequences. Academy of Management Journal 2015, Vol. 58, No. 2, 538–566.