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In leadership, why is recognising paradox critically important?


Source: Wendy Smith https://www.learninginnovationslab.org/guest-faculty/


The importance of creating or seeing a paradox is that you can understand that the data and facts being presented to you can lead to the recommendation or conclusion being offered, but equally that the same data and facts can equally lead to a different conclusion.


Our problem is that we are not very good at finding flaws in our own arguments, if for no other reason than they support our incentives and beliefs. We tend to take it personally when someone attacks our logic, beliefs or method, even if they are searching for the paradox. Equally, the person you are about to question reacts just like you do.

Searching for the paradox allows you to see the jumps, assumptions and framing in the logic being presented, which lays bare how our thinking and decisions are being manipulated. Often it turns out, others are blinded to see one conclusion, and as a leader and executive, your role is to explore and question the flow.


Logical flow decisions often create paradoxes because of an invalid argument, but they are nevertheless valuable in creating a narrative. We see this as a statement or proposition which, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems logically unacceptable or self-contradictory. Finding a paradox in non-logical flow decisions reveals errors in definitions that were assumed to be rigorous. Equally, a paradox can be seen when a seemingly absurd or contradictory statement or proposition, which when investigated, proves to be well-founded or true. What is evident is the need for critical thinking, questions and sensitivity.


Just because an idea pops into your head during a presentation doesn’t mean it’s true or reasonable. Idea bias is a new shinney belief you have just created, leading you to poor decision making as you have been framed. Often in a meeting, the framing is such that the presenter has set up a story or analogy which you believe in and fail to create new questions about (idea bias); as a way to make the logic jumps needed to justify a story. If you cannot see the paradox, you are in their model, which means you are unlikely to make an unbiased decision. If you can see the paradox you have mastered critical thinking and can use tools to ensure you make decisions that lead to outcomes that you want.


If you cannot see the paradox, you are in a model.

Decision-making framing itself create paradox’s for us

  • Prevention paradox: For one person to benefit, many people have to change their behaviour — even though they receive no benefit or even suffer, from the change. An assumption about the adoption of a product.

  • Decision-making paradox: Picking “the best decision-making method” is a decision problem in itself. Can the tool pick the best tool? What has your process already framed as a decision method?

  • Abilene paradox: Making a decision based on what you think others want to do and not on what they actually want to do. Everybody decides to do something that nobody really wants to do, but only what they thought everybody else wanted to do. Do we have the agency to make an individual choice in the setting we have?

  • Inventor’s paradox: It is easier to solve a more general problem that covers the specifics of the sought-after solution. Have we actually solved the problem?

  • Willpower paradox: Those who kept their minds open were more goal-directed and more motivated than those who declared their objective to themselves.

  • Buridan’s ass: Making a rational choice between two outcomes of equal value creates the longest delay in decision making (thanks, Yael). Better known as Fredkin’s paradox: The more similar two choices are, the more time a decision-making agent spends on deciding.

  • Navigation paradox: Increased navigational precision may result in increased collision risk.

  • The paradox of tolerance: Should one tolerate intolerance if intolerance would destroy the possibility of tolerance?

  • Prevention paradox: For one person to benefit, many people have to change their behaviour — even though they receive no benefit or even suffer, from the change.

  • Willpower paradox: Those who kept their minds open were more goal-directed and more motivated than those who declared their objective to themselves.

  • Rule-following paradox: Even though rules are intended to determine actions, “no course of action could be determined by a rule because any course of action can be made out, to accord with the rule.”


A growing list of paradoxes that can help develop critical thinking can be found here. I am exploring Paradox as I expand on my thinking here.


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