How can we embrace paradox in our understanding of the theory and practice of 'leadership'?

To help kick start this conversation, you might like to read  the Editorial of the special themed edition of e-O&P of 'Leadership Paradoxes', and view some images from our post-publication gathering.  (If you click on an image, it should enlarge).

Please feel free to post your contributions in the comments boxes below, and keep the conversation going.

                                      Best wishes.  Roger, Keith and Bob

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I enjoyed taking part in my first AMED event at Roots and Shoots. It certainly is quite different to many other events I've attended, which tend to be over structured with inadequate time for reflection and spaces for new ideas to find a way of sneaking in, unannounced and in an unplanned fashion. Of course one paradoxical question faced by me in making the most of such situations, is 'how can I be making progress when I'm not pushing forward towards a goal in a more organised manner?' To some extent I was able to work successfully with this conundrum on the day, and I attach a short comment that this learning has generated for me. Thank you to all my fellow explorers! 

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Great thoughts, Keith. Thank you.

I'm wondering whether the paradox you mention of a seeming relatively stronger resilience of family systems vis-a-vis 'organisations' towards embracing paradox might have something to do with issues of scale and relationship?  And - like you - I'm also wondering about how best to foster appropriate 'initial conditions' for embracing paradox.  The note you've attached has prompted me to consider whether it might help to play with a kind of conscious - unconscious continuum of paradox awareness, perhaps similar to the so-called 'conscious-unconscious competence' frame.

I've also been wondering about the seeming tendency to use terms such as 'paradox', 'contradiction' and 'dilemma' as if they are interchangeable, and indeed whether that matters.

And given my own particular interests, I'm encouraged by your speculation that 'various aspects of paradox embedded in the processes of reading/writing' might offer some ways forward.  These have been recurring issues within the AMED Writers' Group and the more thoughtful articles within e-O&P, which I'm sure we'll continue to work with.

Thank you for kick-starting this post-workshop phase of the conversation.  I'm wondering if it might also  feature in one of Roger's 'London Conversations' with colleagues in the CLS Network?

Best wishes.  Bob


Keith Kinsella said:

I enjoyed taking part in my first AMED event at Roots and Shoots. It certainly is quite different to many other events I've attended, which tend to be over structured with inadequate time for reflection and spaces for new ideas to find a way of sneaking in, unannounced and in an unplanned fashion. Of course one paradoxical question faced by me in making the most of such situations, is 'how can I be making progress when I'm not pushing forward towards a goal in a more organised manner?' To some extent I was able to work successfully with this conundrum on the day, and I attach a short comment that this learning has generated for me. Thank you to all my fellow explorers! 

Hi Bob

Just a quick response to some of the ideas in your comment: 

Regarding the possible different meaning of words like contradiction, dilemma and so on: I've found that it's better in situations of uncertainty and difference, not to rely on universal definitions of these kinds of words, but to seek out the particular understandings that are actually being used in local contexts/relationships. When I do this, often the confusion can be reduced and worked with. Notwithstanding this, and for what it's worth, the general understanding I take into situations goes something like this:

contradiction: applied to arguments being put forward by someone that contain conflicting claims, but no confusion.

dilemma: differences being experienced between the losses/gains of two or more options/'horns' but again no confusion.

paradox: puzzling/confusing situation containing apparent contradictions...but which might be true.

The last mentioned also seems to involve some mystification with links to Bateson's 'double bind' and Argyris' later use of this idea in his own writing about defensive relations in organisations, where there are contradictions between 'logical levels' e.g. context and content.

Though I don't normally use the 'competence continuum' you mention, I do agree that that some movement along this is likely to be necessary if groups are to become able to grapple with paradox and its effects - hence the kind of staging described by Donal and Jonathan/Peter.

Do you have any thoughts as to how writing/reading might be used as a an entry point to such developments?

best wishes

Keith

.

Thank you, Keith - very helpful and interesting.  I do have some thoughts on your last question, but no time at present to share them now.  Will come back to this as soon as I can.  Best wishes.  Bob

Keith Kinsella said:

Hi Bob

Just a quick response to some of the ideas in your comment: 

Regarding the possible different meaning of words like contradiction, dilemma and so on: I've found that it's better in situations of uncertainty and difference, not to rely on universal definitions of these kinds of words, but to seek out the particular understandings that are actually being used in local contexts/relationships. When I do this, often the confusion can be reduced and worked with. Notwithstanding this, and for what it's worth, the general understanding I take into situations goes something like this:

contradiction: applied to arguments being put forward by someone that contain conflicting claims, but no confusion.

dilemma: differences being experienced between the losses/gains of two or more options/'horns' but again no confusion.

paradox: puzzling/confusing situation containing apparent contradictions...but which might be true.

The last mentioned also seems to involve some mystification with links to Bateson's 'double bind' and Argyris' later use of this idea in his own writing about defensive relations in organisations, where there are contradictions between 'logical levels' e.g. context and content.

Though I don't normally use the 'competence continuum' you mention, I do agree that that some movement along this is likely to be necessary if groups are to become able to grapple with paradox and its effects - hence the kind of staging described by Donal and Jonathan/Peter.

Do you have any thoughts as to how writing/reading might be used as a an entry point to such developments?

best wishes

Keith

.

Hi Keith and Bob

After the conversation I too had the sense that we had been focusing on one aspect, polarities in fact (two ends of the same stick), rather than completely getting to paradox. I appreciate the definition from bob on the day and here form Keith which bring us to the aspect of the paradox that is puzzling or absurd. Morgan's first piece says the paradox about leadership is leadeership. Which is not only absurd but sort of makes us laugh!

A couple of days after the conversation I woke up with several polarities that seem to crop up repeatedly in my work and life (eg. me-we, independent-interdependent, outside-inside, complexity-simplicity, doing-being, pre-conceived-emergent...).

Rather than fall into the TLDR trap here I will simply observe one paradox to do with polarities I encounter in coaching/facilitation. When someone arrives with the blinding insight or moment of truth, often when I summarise and play this back they will go to the other end of the stick. For example, on the me-we polarity, if I ask a client to talk about their role in the team they will often say something about them and if I ask them to say more, they will often start to talk about the team.

Weird isn't it?

Thanks to all who wrote on this and added to the conversation on the day!

Tony

 

A paradox that has been dancing around for me since the event has to do with dissolving leadership altogether. As a strong believer in the notion that the wise leader (like the philosopher king and benevolent despot) is a temporary stopgap whilst we sort out our capacity to work together constructively in co-operative inter-independence (or something like that), I am surprised at how resilient is the idea of leadership as a good and necessary thing. I dare say abolitionists felt similarly about the resilience of slave-owning.

So my paradox is the not-new observation that elected leaders in organisations are enormously rare in a world where many hail democracy and the election rather than the imposition of leaders as a good thing.

My main delight from the day was the simple statement that 'material builds up and needs to be expressed'. It seems like a clear description of almost any process in life. It requires no leader.

There. My material has organised and expressed itself. Autopoiesis innit?

Thank you everyone for a very provocative day. 

 

[ I'm probably not using this facility properly - here are responses to both Tony and Andrew]

Hi Tony

In talking about the role of polarities, you wrote: ‘For example, on the me-we polarity, if I ask a client to talk about their role in the team they will often say something about them and if I ask them to say more, they will often start to talk about the team’

Some thoughts: maybe what happens is that when pressed, people find they need to inquire into their relationships – after all what is identity but an expression of the most stable and powerful relational influences upon us – before they can say more about themselves? Or alternatively, using the Farrelly approach, the more you provoke people by pursuing a particular line of questioning/responding in an exaggerated way, the person has to shift as they realise that what you are agreeing to/challenging, is starting to look out of balance. The ‘other end of the stick’ which is normally hidden by our focus on the lone individual, is suddenly made visible…and perhaps this can be experienced as paradoxical?

Another view is that there are many contributors to an experience/life. Bahktin in his dialogical view of self/ identity, coined the term ‘ventriloquation’ to describe this process where I speak through the voices of others that exist around me in various communities: all my talk is ‘filled with others’ words…[which over time I]…assimilate, rework, and re-accentuate’. He went further to claim that: ‘I am conscious of myself and become myself only while revealing myself for another, through another, and with the help of another. The most important acts constituting self-consciousness are determined by a relationship toward another consciousness.' So in this view, we can only know ourselves through others: we see ourselves in a continuous present without beginning [birth] or end [death]; whereas others can see us in space/time pieces and are able to offer perceptions and judgements.

So maybe, instead of ‘know thyself’, we might say more relationally, and I guess for many, paradoxically:  ‘know thyself through knowing others’.  ¿Comprende, no?

and further...

HI Andrew

As you propose, when the climate is right for ‘co-operative interdependence’ there is probably little need for ‘leadership’ as we tend to understand it. But how often doe these favourable conditions occur naturally in our social/work interactions? 

But I like your term because it chimes with one of Wittgenstein’s ideas about the use of language, which is to puzzle out on a continuous basis the fundamental question: ‘how do we go on together’ in the often complex and uncertain situations we find ourselves in?  My understanding is that he means this in an ontological way, how we are becoming/being together in a grounding way – as against making sense intellectually – and before more sophisticated language games are possible. And I suspect that doing this requires a fair amount of what I refer to in my paper as ‘going upstream’, to leave behind the representational understandings/language we usually rely on to define and resolve problems [without including ourselves in the analysis of course – no fingerprints found!], and to identify the new disclosive understandings [fresh, revelatory framings that enable new thinking and action] that will enable us to experience anew the relational basis of how we might better go on together.

If we can agree at this fundamental level - and continue agreeing - then something like ‘co-operative interdependence’ becomes a possibility. So maybe ‘dynamic/fleeting influence’ is a better term to use than than ‘temporary stopgap’ – in the sense that the resilient and requisite aspects of leadership, doesn’t go away altogether [your ‘dissolving’], but comes and goes, altering as an individual/group’s needs for leadership, change?

You also wrote in your teasing way: 'material builds up and needs to be expressed…[so] Autopoiesis, innit?' Though this has a fateful sound to it, I think there is in this view the idea that living systems are 'self producing' mechanisms which maintain their particular form despite material inflow and outflow i.e. there is some kind of intentionality. And perhaps, as I mention in my article, this process is more susceptible to a ‘dwelling’ approach to learning where we allow our tacit, embodied learning abilities to lead the way. I think this fits with the notion of continual negotiation at the boundaries of our complex selves – boundaries which are not lines which cannot be cut but are instead ‘dynamic interfacings’ between distinct but not discrete selves that seek to maintain [our] chosen versions of ‘structural drift’. My sense is that Wittgenstein’s question fits very nicely into these interactions embedded in the continuous background flow of human interaction. So perhaps a paradoxical injunction here might be of the form ‘lead yourself by seeking out co-leadership with others’?; or ‘keep looking for those fleeting signs of leadership from others that enable you to lead yourself’. What do you make of this?

Happy Easter to you both!

Keith

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