Leadership In A Time Of Paradox: Lessons From Social Change Organizations

December 2009


It has been a year full of challenges, to say the least, with hardships at the personal, organizational, community, national and global levels. These tough times have intensified everyone's experience of competing demands.

During this year Americans have felt galvanized to join President Obama’s national call for civic duty and public service, approaching the economic crisis as a challenge for collective leadership rather than complacently waiting for the storm to pass. However, the same ordinary citizens who have been asked to contribute to the common good have had to protect their own well-being or deal with the chaos of a lost job or a home foreclosure. We have spent prudently, yet we have felt compelled to make long-term investments that may never present themselves again – in housing, for example, with mortgage rates at an all-time low.

These are examples of paradox – situations that entail contradictory yet related dimensions that seem logical in isolation yet absurd or irrational when appearing simultaneously. A paradox is a duality, opposing poles standing in contradiction that create tension or strain.

Paradox is inherent in everyday individual and organizational life. However, it becomes even more pronounced during exceptionally tough times, characterized by increased complexity and uncertainty, which escalate the risks of decision-making.

There are no easy answers when dealing with paradox. The typical managerial response has been to make a rational choice between the two competing demands, or to alternate the attention given to each. In a world increasingly described as complex, though, it may simply be unacceptable to favor one demand over the other because the losses would be too great. A complex environment is characterized by an intricate web of interconnections and dependencies, so simply choosing to honor only one side of a paradox can have unknown repercussions.

Dealing with paradox artfully is the work of leadership because there are no pre-defined solutions for honoring both sides. This has been one of the lessons RCLA has gained from working with over 90 social change organizations across the US to understand how they "do" leadership. Often their leadership challenge is about finding ways to interweave both sides of a paradox. An example of this is dealing with the paradox of being visionary while staying relevant.

Being Visionary while Addressing Today's Reality

Justice Now is an organization that sees itself as part of the "prison abolition" movement. Their vision is a world without prisons, premised on a fundamental belief that the violence inherent in the prison structure makes them part of the problem and not the solution.

Justice Now often finds itself teetering between working toward its vision, which they say can only happen by engaging those who are impacted the most – the prisoners themselves – and addressing the immediate suffering of prisoners.

Cindy Chandler, one of the organization’s leaders, sums it up: “I can’t sit down with [a prisoner] and talk about what it takes to achieve our vision if he has a wound on his arm that is about to become gangrene.”

For Justice Now, dealing with the here and now risks the expansion of the very system they wish to abolish. They are reminded of a historical example in California where the anti-prison argument to release elderly prisoners so they can die with compassion was co-opted into creating the largest geriatric unit in any prison in the US.

How does Justice Now deal with this tension? They carefully determine what it is they can do in the here and now that can be maneuvered into addressing broader systemic issues. For Justice Now, addressing prisoners’ immediate needs is one way to draw them into addressing the larger vision.

One way the organization does that is by providing prisoners with information and encouraging them to voice what they need. When prisoners develop a sense of self determination by seeing how they can help themselves, they are ready to fight for the long-term vision. Instead of setting up a dichotomy between relevance and vision, Justice Now finds that being relevant is a way to unfold the vision.

Drawing Strength from Unity and Diversity

Another often-encountered paradox is that of unity and diversity. When organizations seek to collaborate, they actually have diversity in mind, because they want to complement the resources that each has. The potential for collaborative advantage depends on the ability of each partner to bring different resources. This needed diversity, however, also reflects differences in organizational purposes, which create tensions that may reduce the unity required for collaboration. Effectiveness in collaboration requires addressing this paradox.

For the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), the unity and diversity paradox is an inherent part of everyday life. NYIC is an umbrella policy and advocacy organization for more than 200 groups in New York State that work with immigrants and refugees. NYIC has become a leading advocate for immigrant communities on the local, state and national levels.

NYIC’s membership includes very different types of organizations - grassroots community organizations; nonprofit health and human services organizations; religious and academic institutions; labor unions; and legal, social and economic justice organizations. Moreover, the Coalition works on a multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-sector basis.

Diversity is a source of strength for NYIC because it enables the coalition to attain sufficient leverage at the policy table. However, this diversity also makes NYIC vulnerable to fragmentation and lack of unity in voice.

One way NYIC holds the two demands in making decisions, for example, is by upholding ideological diversity while finding unity in the way the decision is made. Doing so requires painstaking deliberations that ensure that all perspectives are heard before a decision is reached. This is important so that each member understands where the other is coming from. While they may not all share the same perspective, the deliberate space created fosters unity because it affords each participant the time to share their views. The decision-making process, while potentially divisive, becomes an opportunity for establishing understanding. This way unity emerges in diversity.

Adapting at the Edge of Chaos

These examples illustrate that competing demands can, in fact, complement each other in ways that produce innovative solutions – and that is the work of leadership.

That new creative forms can emerge at the brink of madness is an idea that has gained currency through "complexity theory."

Complexity science is a field that draws lessons from workings in nature. It is helpful in providing a metaphor for social systems – families, communities, organizations, etc. – as living systems. According to complexity theory, such systems are not mechanistic arrangements of many moving parts but a dynamic and continual entwining and interaction of elements that organize and reorganize themselves into more adaptive systems over time. We would add that it is the work of leadership that makes that innovation and adaptation possible.

One compelling idea offered by complexity theory is that systems are likely to function at their best when they are at the "edge of chaos" – a healthy place that keeps organizations on their toes. The edge of chaos is a titillating state when organizations don’t quite get to enjoy order – too much of that will cause them to lose their responsive capacity – and when they don’t quite fall into chaos, which will cause an organization to disintegrate. Dealing with paradox can push an organization to this edge.

Seeing from social change organizations that paradox can be honored and that the edge of chaos is in fact a good place to be, RCLA is not being facetious when we wish:

  • For a 2010 that is as, if not more, paradoxical than 2009;
  • For your resilience in honoring opposing demands and ability to embrace paradox; and
  • That you get pushed to the edge of chaos.