Why Engaging with Paradoxes Touches Me to My Core (And How It May Do the Same with You)

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“My fascination with paradoxes goes much further than a critical analysis of society and my own profession. It has to do with who I am and how I feel about life.” Check out the following blog post that UTP author Ivo Brughmans wrote about his book Paradoxical Leadership.

My interest in connecting opposing forces – what I call Paradoxical Leadership – is not only rooted in detached observations and conceptual analyses, but reflects a highly personal quest. My passion for the paradoxical theme originates from three different sources: my concern for today’s global challenges (macro), my role as management consultant in organizational change (meso), and my own personal life (micro). On all three levels, this theme is on a fundamental level intertwined with who I am.

Searching for a Sustainable Way of Living

It was about 2008. I was travelling a lot for work and felt a little guilty about my increasing footprint. I started writing in airports and airplanes about the burning question of how we, as individuals and as a society, could adopt a more sustainable way of living. It is a truly paradoxical question, as two fundamental human needs come together. A real sustainable way of living must take into account the natural limitations of our planet but also provide all the space needed for personal and economic growth. When I started thinking about this, I was quickly confronted by two extremes: the world of abundance and the world of limitations.

On the one hand, there is the model of unlimited economic and personal growth and ever-increasing material wealth. This model still lies at the heart of nearly every national and international policy, as it is the driving principle behind economic development, job creation, and raising the standard of living. At an individual level, this model is reflected in the adage “the sky is the limit,” whether in pursuing personal growth, material wealth, or breathtaking experiences. At present, this lifestyle of abundance is reserved for a relatively small part of the world’s population, and we are already on the brink of ecological disaster. What if every human being on this planet would adopt this way of living? Even six earths wouldn’t be enough to meet this generalized need for ever-increasing growth.

The other extreme is that of austerity: distancing ourselves from material wealth and living modestly. Individuals can stop traveling by airplane or car, become vegan and eat only local and seasonal products, swap second-hand items instead of buying new, and use as little energy and water as possible to keep our ecological footprint small. This may be an alternative for a few, but for most it will remain unappealing. It is human nature to want to grow and fully enjoy the abundance and fullness of life.

This was one of the first examples of an apparent contradiction, in which I fully realized that neither of these opposite approaches is optimal and that the only long-term solution is a “both/and” solution. How can we achieve both abundance and limitation at the same time? Or even better: How can we find “abundance in limitation?”

The challenge, I realized, was to go further than simple compromises, such as eating less meat or taking your bicycle more often instead of your car. I started thinking about unlimited growth in the virtual world (the concept of “Second Life” was at that time booming, as a kind of predecessor of the Metaverse). Why should you travel to Machu Picchu for a magical experience if you can have it in virtual reality on your coach? And thinking even further: what about the vast universe of our inner world and imagination? Like the French novelist Marcel Proust said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” In that sense, couldn’t we experience the same level of magical intensity in a seemingly boring park around the corner, if we could only see it with fresh eyes of wonder?

Afterwards I realized that these were probably not the solutions – take the huge amounts of energy servers need to support these virtual worlds or the huge difference between online experiences and the “real thing” – but it set me on the “both/and” path.

The more I thought about it, the more it became clear to me that all major social, economic, cultural, and political challenges of today – migration, national sovereignty, identity, gender, diversity, climate, digitalization, etc. – need a fresh look from a both/and perspective. For myself, developing this new way of thinking became more important than focusing on this or that specific dilemma.

From a Consultant’s Perspective

As a consultant, I have all too often been confronted with one-sided management trends that replace each other in relatively quick succession, like an eternal pendulum going from one end of the spectrum to the other. What has been proclaimed in the past as the ultimate solution, has now become source of all problems, and is replaced by a radically opposite course. Organizations may zigzag between “dividing into autonomous business units” and “integration into one company,” between “entrepreneurship” and “compliance” or between “insourcing” and “outsourcing.”

If you were to look at this cynically, you could say that this is the inexhaustible livelihood for a consultant because there is a lot of work to be done every time the organization needs to change. Consultants are often the first to hype new trends in management, and many consultants will not turn down the opportunity to exchange an old trend for a promising new one.

However, with every swing huge amounts of capital and value are destroyed. From the perspective of staff, a radical change can seem disruptive and destabilizing and thus evoke a lot of resistance and demotivation: “What we were doing before was apparently not good enough.”

Shouldn’t the role of a good consultant be to advise the client to take a critical look at all these trends, to make them aware of the unstable swings within the organization and to stimulate the client to search for sustainable both/and solutions? The real question is how to combine the power of both: economies of scale AND acting closely to local markets, empowerment AND consistency.

From a Personal Perspective

My fascination with paradoxes goes much further than a critical analysis of society and my own profession. It has to do with who I am and how I feel about life. My motto is: “Nothing in moderation, everything in excess.” According to one personality test, I am a complete extrovert; according to another, a complete introvert. I can be extremely businesslike but also very empathetic. I can enjoy doing nothing at all, but I make sure that I am fully booked from morning until evening. My main personal challenge is to find the happy medium among these extremes.

When I was a teenager, this was all very confusing because I was searching for a clear and well-defined identity, and that is not easy when you feel like a dandy one day, a punk the next, and a hippie the day after that, with all the clothes to match! But as I got older, I learned that I can also use these opposing aspects of my personality to my advantage. It allows me to switch from a broad and abstract perspective to practical details and back, or to balance between empathy and professionalism. It certainly became useful in my work as a consultant. In some organizations, my role was mainly to create urgency and spur the company to meet the goals they had laid out in lengthy vision documents without anything happening. In other organizations, I had to slow down the roaring stream of improvement programs and initiatives and encourage the company to critically reflect on their core purpose.

This is not just about flexibly shifting from one side to the other. What really fascinates me about this subject is the interweaving of different worlds. How can we connect innovation and tradition? How can we bring performance and well-being together? How can we adapt ourselves the others and still stay close to ourselves?

The thing that affects me most on a personal level is the magical moment when two opposite forces come together to form a new whole. For example: a timid-looking girl turns out to be a fierce drummer in a heavy metal band, a melancholic song sounds cheerful at the same time, a seemingly shapeless and rotting plant suddenly sprouts new shoots, or the shoreline where earth, water, and air meet.

These three sources of inspiration took me on a full-time journey of researching, writing, and speaking about this theme. In my new book, Paradoxical Leadership: How to Make Complexity an Advantage, I explore all three perspectives, starting with ourselves. The book offers both a radically new angle for looking at the complex challenges of today, and practical methods and tools to make it work.


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