Management behaviors are complicated. As David A. Waldman and David E. Bowen explained in their Academy of Management Perspectives 2016 article, “Learning to Be a Paradox-Savvy Leader,” several challenges have arisen for today’s supervisors. Reconciling each of these requirements in isolation is reasonable; however, when they are in combination, it can seem nearly impossible.
As managers, we are expected to maintain unwavering confidence in ourselves and our abilities, yet also demonstrate humility. We are required to control the business areas we lead while giving up control to those we lead. And we are tasked with simultaneous preservation of continuity and pursuit of change.
These expectations reveal a natural tension that comes from competing values. While there may not be clear or simple solutions, managers can learn to become more ambidextrous in their ability to leverage both sides of the spectrum.
Confidence and humility
The concept of agency is common in management academia and is usually presented in business schools as half of the principal-agent dilemma. In this dilemma, the agent’s self-interests seemingly come into conflict with the principal’s organizational interests. In this context, agency refers to how individual leaders assert themselves in their environments and to those they lead. They must balance this with a sense of communion, serving or deferring to the needs or interests of others. Demonstrating humility can be seen via the ability to keep one’s position and experience in perspective, accepting that no leader is perfect, and actively leveraging the strengths found in others.
Interestingly, in both confidence and humility, the biggest threats to a leader’s effectiveness are the extremes of these qualities. Managers who are so self-assured that it borders on narcissism likely will fail to recognize weaknesses in their own capabilities or the strengths of their associates. On the other hand, managers who are humble in the extreme may lack clear conviction of ideas or values.
Control and employee empowerment
Maintaining control as a manager seems to go hand-in-hand with accountability. By prioritizing opportunities and directing resources to areas with the greatest impact, leaders take action to control a situation. However, recently there has been a greater acceptance of the concept of relinquishing control in order to give associates autonomy, hone their talents and enable them to realize their full potentials. Employee empowerment requires decision-making ability, knowledge of strategy and financial performance, professional development, and meaningful performance-based rewards.
Again, it is important for managers to recognize the perils of the extremes of these qualities. Even the most intelligent leader relying solely on control will be unable to maximize contributions in complex, ever-changing environments. On the other hand, a leader who is unable to maintain some degree of control may lose credibility or be seen as more of a peer than a boss.
Continuity and change
Leaders are expected to have a watchful eye on both today and the future, short-term deliverables and long-term capabilities. Thus, they must embrace both stability and transformation concurrently in their messaging, behaviors and demonstrated priorities. The term ambidexterity was coined in the management context with this challenge in mind.
Managers who are comfortable balancing these elements can deal with today’s requirements while performing long-term thinking and planning. Such a leader can highlight changing market demands and explain why it’s important to develop and deliver next-level capabilities and solutions. The difficulty lies in honoring the business’s historic contributions with the need to continue to innovate. Ideas both large and small are critical to the ambidextrous organization under the leadership of a paradox-savvy leader.
Ambidextrous managers must learn how to tap into divergent competences interchangeably while retaining authentic leadership qualities, such as integrity, commitment, passion, accountability, communication and a measure of intelligence. At all times, they also must keep in mind that there is no best style of leadership and that the most successful leaders actively embrace ambiguity. The best managers are as dynamic as the environments and teams they serve.
Michael Morand, CPIM-F, CSCP-F, CLTD-F, is a supply chain senior manager at Johnson & Johnson and a doctoral candidate at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.