• Jason Starke

Paradoxical Leadership

In the last leadership post, we talked about what a safety leader might look like through the lens of the transformational leadership model. These attributes included inspirational motivation, idealized influence, intellectual stimulation, and individual consideration.

However, on a finer point, top leaders are more than a collection of positive traits, but importantly great decision-makers (Botelho et al., 2018). Safety leaders are faced with strategic and tactical operational decisions daily and need to be able to confidently make the appropriate decision in a timely manner. In making these decisions, safety leaders are faced with two competing realms in which decisions need to be made: production and protection. ICAO refers to this as the “management dilemma” (Icao, 2013). A dilemma is a binary “either/or” situation which really shouldn’t be the model for making decisions regarding the protection of human life, infrastructure, or business sustainability. Instead, leaders that view the tension between production and protection as a paradox open the decision-making process to a wider range of innovative and creative solutions that work to balance this tension.

Paradoxes are opposed, yet interrelated, demands that exist at the same time and persist over time (Lewis et al., 2014). The tension between production and protection is a paradox as it is dichotomous and does persist through the life of the organization. Instead of safety decisions being “either/or” in regards to production versus protection, a paradox frames the decision as “and/both” (Waldman & Bowen, 2016). Through using paradox thinking and decision-making, the safety leader is not confined to a decision at the expense of another but rather can explore creative solutions that balance the tension between production and protection. So how does a leader make decisions in this manner? (Riel & Martin, 2017) advocate that the leader needs to change his thinking into what they call “Integrative Thinking”.

The four elements of this model are:

  1. Articulate the models: This is where the leader conceptualizes the problem and is able to understand the opposing models (i.e. options) more deeply.

  2. Examine the models: At this point, the leader defines where the tension is between the two options in the context of production and protection. The leader will discover where the options might have connection points or similarities. This allows the leader to see what really drives the tension between the options as well as better understand the opposing options.

  3. Explore the possibilities: Once the leader understands the two options, has discerned the value of both, as well as the tension between both, she is able to now work on integrating the elements of both options into a superior third option. Riel and Martin advocate that this step requires creativity and collaboration for maximum effect.

  4. Assess the prototypes: This element is where the new option is tested and refined. This is the chance for the leader to determine if this developed solution addresses the tension between the original opposing options as well as provides a beneficial outcome.

The elements with descriptions above are a very cursory overview of what is detailed in the book Creating Great Choices. Integrative thinking is a characteristic of being a paradox-savvy leader that guides the leader through making strategic and tactical operational decisions. Decisions regarding safety versus profit don’t have to be “either/or” where one is sacrificed for the other, but with a little practice and creativity, leaders can make confident “and/both” decisions that maintain the margins of safety and a profitable bottom line.


Botelho, E. L., Powell, K. R., & Raz, T. (2018). The CEO Next Door: The 4 Behaviors that Transform Ordinary People Into World-class Leaders. Currency.

ICAO. (2013). Doc 9859: Safety Management Manual; Third Edition - 2013 (p. 251).

Lewis, M. W., Andriopoulos, C., & Smith, W. K. (2014). Paradoxical Leadership to Enable Strategic Agility. California Management Review, 56(3), 58–77.

Riel, J., & Martin, R. L. (2017). Creating great choices: A leader’s guide to integrative thinking. Harvard Business Review Press.

Waldman, D. A., & Bowen, D. E. (2016). Learning to be a paradox-savvy leader. Academy of Management Perspectives, 30(3), 316–327.

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