Leadership is as much about being flexible as it is about being decisive. Effective leadership behavior requires understanding and managing a series of paradoxes. Successful leaders understand these paradoxes and are flexible enough to modify their preferred behavior based on specific situations. These paradoxes are part of the leadership art of influencing and encouraging others to help move an organization and community to a better place.

What Are Some Examples of Leadership Paradoxes?

First, what is a paradox? A paradox is defined as a statement that contradicts itself. Paradoxical thinking is a process in which you identify and define contrasting characteristics of a problem or issue.
Leadership is not about a specific way of acting. Rather, a successful leader behaves in different ways at different times based on different situations.

Examples of leadership paradoxes:

  • Humility vs. confidence.
  • Confident vs. arrogant.
  • Innovation vs. chaos.
  • Caring about employees vs. willing to fire employees.
  • Listening/learning vs. making a decision.
  • Urgency vs. patience.
  • Audacious vs. foolish.
  • Wanting facts vs. taking action.
  • Empathy vs. firmness.
  • Being liked vs. being respected.

I am sure you can think of others. Effective leaders who understand themselves know they must be flexible and hence know when they:

  • Are being too humble and not exuding enough confidence.
  • Are pushing so much innovation that they are causing chaos in their organization.
  • Should move from acting with urgency to being more patient.
  • Should listen more or when it is time to act.

There is no formula for deciding where to be on these paradoxes. Effective leaders are able to read the situation and understand where they should be on any given paradox given a specific situation.


1. Choose two paradoxes that give you the most trouble. For example, one paradox that can often get me into trouble is urgency versus patience as I am not a patient person.
2. Develop one or two action steps you can take to prevent each paradox from tripping you up in the future.

The 50–30–20 Percent Portrait of Leadership

If we all got together in one room, we could easily develop a consensus of 20 essential leadership attributes. It is my belief—based on my personal experience, observing effective leaders, and reading about great leaders—that no leader excels at all 20 attributes. Effective leaders are:

  • Great at about 50 percent of the identified leadership attributes.
  • Good at about 30 percent of the identified leadership attributes.
  • Inadequate at about 20 percent of the identified leadership attributes or approximately three to five of these attributes depending on the exact percent.

(The percentages are approximate: plus or minus 5 percent or so.)

How can a leader be successful and also be terrible at three to five of the leadership attributes? Effective leaders know themselves well, including their strengths and weaknesses. Leaders understand and are comfortable with the fact that:
No one is perfect and no one has all necessary skill sets.
No one can change their basic personality. (Refer to your enneagram, mentioned in Part 2 of this series.)
 So accept your humanness and admit your failings and weaknesses and manage around them.

How Do Leaders “Manage Around” Weaknesses?

You can try to be great at everything, but that will be about as fruitful as beating your head against the wall. A more effective way is to manage around these weaknesses by delegating the leadership attributes you are not good at to someone who is good at that trait.
Two examples of “managing around” from my own personal experience:

  • I hated and wasn’t very good at the “care and feeding” of councilmembers, which is an attribute that could have been terminal to my career. I assigned a few of my best department heads to stay closely connected to specific councilmembers. The councilmembers’ needs were met, and I wasn’t spending all my time doing something I didn’t like to do and didn’t always do very well. I had one very firm rule: the assigned department heads had to keep me well informed of their discussions with their councilmembers.
  • I was not every good at celebrating successes, so I assigned someone on my management team who exceled at this.

You need to figure out your own way to manage around your weaknesses instead of stressing over them. Confident leaders know what they are not good at and manage around those things.


1.  Identify the leadership attributes you are not good at or hate doing.
2.  Choose at least two of these that you will begin to manage around.
3.  Ask someone or several people in your organization to be responsible for ensuring these leadership attributes are being covered.

Modifying Your Behavior

Most leaders want to modify a few of their behaviors to be more effective. However almost no one can change their behavior, their habits, or their comfort zone by themselves, as I discussed in the previous article. All of us, including successful leaders, need help to change or modify our habits or behaviors. For example, I was a strong city manager with strong opinions, but I was also very impatient. Therefore, I asked someone on my management team to provide me with feedback after each meeting on how I was doing with listening to others and encouraging them to share ideas. Over time I got much better at listening, as well as including my less extroverted department heads in discussions more often. Figure out who you need to ask to help you with modifying specific behaviors.


  • Leadership paradoxes are real, and you need to identify which ones trip you up.
  • Successful leaders know where they want to be on each paradox depending on the specific situation.
  • No one is perfect and leaders are terrible at about 20 percent of the essential leadership traits.
  • Successful leaders “manage around” their weaknesses.
  • Get help from other people when you are trying to improve your behavior.
  • None of this is easy! Allow yourself to make mistakes in your initial steps.

These pointers should make leadership less stressful and more fun.

 ED EVERETT, ICMA-CM, is a consultant and former city manager, Redwood City, California. In 2007, he received ICMA’s Award for Career Excellence in Memory of Mark E. Keane. (


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