The Hidden Opportunity in Paradoxes

When faced with impossible choices, organizations that embrace seemingly contradictory options expand the scope of what’s possible.

Reading Time: 16 min 


Permissions and PDF

Traci Daberko

Leading an organization demands that we confront a constant array of choices. Should we invest in this market or that one? Should we offer luxury products or mass-market goods? Should we provide incentives to individuals or teams? Should we recruit university graduates exclusively or look for nongraduates with specialized skills? While these choices can require careful consideration, they are essentially straightforward. The really hard choices that leaders will face in our increasingly complex world, argue some management thinkers, represent a different kind of problem altogether: the paradox.

Many of us are likely to have encountered the idea of paradox primarily in the context of art or philosophy. Defined by the Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English as “a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true,” the word paradox might bring to mind examples like the Socratic statement “I know that I know nothing.” Paradoxes can be interesting to ponder, but we don’t often consider how they might expand our thinking as organizational leaders. That is changing in important ways.

In their book Both/And Thinking, business scholars Wendy K. Smith and Marianne W. Lewis define paradoxes as “persistent, interdependent contradictions.”1 That means they contain at least two elements that relate to each other but appear to contradict. London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra described the “authenticity paradox”: Leaders are told to be authentic in order to succeed, but an authentic leader can struggle to develop because they get fixated on being true to themself instead of what is required to succeed.2 Some scholars assert that the very idea of an organization has a seeming paradox at its heart because “on the one hand it contains free, creative, independent human subjects; on the other hand, the relation between these subjects aspires to be one of organization, order, and control.”3 Innovation seems acutely paradoxical.



1. W.K. Smith and M.W. Lewis, “Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems” (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2022).

2. H. Ibarra, “The Authenticity Paradox,” Harvard Business Review 93, no. 1-2 (January-February 2015): 52-59.

3. S.R. Clegg, J.V. da Cunha, and M.P. e Cunha, “Management Paradoxes: A Relational View,” Human Relations 55, no. 5 (May 2002): 483-503.

4. “Under Pressure: Leading in Paradox Industries,” PDF file (Shell Lubricant Solutions, 2021),

5. T. Wilson, “Shell Chief Sets ‘Ruthless’ New Course to Catch Up With U.S. Rivals,” Financial Times, June 18, 2023,

6. For more on BP, see R. Bousso, “Special Report: BP Gambles Big on Fast Transition From Oil to Renewables,” Reuters, Sept. 20, 2021,; R. Bousso, S. Nasralla, and S. Mcfarlane, “Insight: Inside BP’s Plan to Reset Renewables as Oil and Gas Boom,” Reuters, March 7, 2023,; and “BP Turns Out Lights at Solar Business,” Reuters, Dec. 21, 2021,

7. For more on Ørsted, see J. Parnell, “Orsted Sells LNG Unit, but Says Its Natural Gas Business Isn’t Going Anywhere,” Greentech Media, Dec. 19, 2019,; and S.D. Anthony, A. Trotter, R. Bell, et al., “The Transformation 20: Strategic Change Rankings for 2019,” PDF file (Boston: Innosight, September 2019),

8. G. Serafeim, “Purpose and Profit: How Business Can Lift Up the World” (New York: HarperCollins Leadership, 2022).

9. S.D. Anthony and M. Putz, “How Leaders Delude Themselves About Disruption,” MIT Sloan Management Review 61, no. 3 (spring 2020): 35-42.

10. S.D. Anthony, “The Paradox of Paradoxes: Why the Perceived Paradoxes Facing Organizational Leaders Are Material Illusions That Simultaneously Attract and Repel,” PDF file (Singapore: INSEAD, July 1, 2021).

11. J. Schad, M.W. Lewis, S. Raisch, et al., “Paradox Research in Management Science: Looking Back to Move Forward,” Academy of Management Annals 10, no. 1 (January 2016): 5-64.

12. R. Hastings and E. Meyer, “No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention” (New York: Penguin, 2020).

13. N. Slawinski and P. Bansal, “Short on Time: Intertemporal Tensions in Business Sustainability,” Organization Science 26, no. 2 (March-April 2015): 531-549.

14. H. Gregersen, “Better Brainstorming,” Harvard Business Review 96, no. 2 (March-April 2018): 66-71.

15. E. Miron-Spektor, A. Ingram, J. Keller, et al., “Microfoundations of Organizational Paradox: The Problem Is How We Think About the Problem,” Academy of Management Journal 61, no. 1 (February 2018): 26-45.

16. See “Paradox Mindset Inventory” at https://paradox.lerner.udel​.edu.

17. S. Malhotra and J.S. Harrison, “A Blessing and a Curse: How Chief Executive Officer Cognitive Complexity Influences Firm Performance Under Varying Industry Conditions,” Strategic Management Journal 43, no. 13 (December 2022): 2809-2828.

18. L.S. Lüscher and M.W. Lewis, “Organizational Change and Managerial Sensemaking: Working Through Paradox,” Academy of Management Journal 51, no. 2 (April 2008): 221-240.

Reprint #:


More Like This

Add a comment

You must to post a comment.

First time here? Sign up for a free account: Comment on articles and get access to many more articles.

Comments (2)
Ruth Zaplin
I find it interesting that the author of the recent article on polarities, "The Hidden Opportunity in Paradoxes" by Scott D. Anthony (Winter 2024) does not mention/ reference the pioneering work of Barry Johnson.  His  book, titled And: Making a Difference by Leveraging Polarity, Paradox or Dilemma (Vol 1),  is one of my go-to references on the polarity approach. He also invented the polarity map, a tool I find essential in applying the polarity approach.
Stuart Roehrl
A very valuable discussion with a fresh perspective on how to proceed in the context of seemingly conflicting business objectives.  Leading fast-food chains face such issues, e.g., being an opportunity employer & meeting service standards.
Stuart Roehrl