Leadership
November 13, 2012

The power of being an oxymoron

Paradoxical Thinking
Jerry Fletcher and Kelle Olwyler
Berrett-Koehler, 219 pages,  $34.85

Are you an iron-willed pussycat? A creative imitator? A hesitant risktaker? A competent self-doubter?

In short, are you a paradox?

In an age when we’re told to be focused, determined and consistent, having paradoxical tendencies would seem a guaranteed barrier to success. But high performance consultants Jerry Fletcher and Kelle Olwyler, in their 1997 book Paradoxical Thinking, argued that it can actually be the recipe for success. “We discovered that individuals are always paradoxical when they are performing at their best. More importantly, each individual seems to express a particular and unique paradox when achieving his or her best results,” they write.

Of course, the yin-yang symbol, a central feature of Asian thinking, highlights the importance of paradoxes, and how each contradictory element can accentuate the other, in a counter-intuitive interplay. The consultants’ book, which to my joy I recently rediscovered while cleaning bookshelves, came out before Steve Jobs’s second coming at Apple, but certainly those of us who read Walter Isaacson’s massive biography of the zealous, creative, Zen jerk were confronted with a host of paradoxes in his character that made him both compelling and repulsive.

Conventional thinking says paradoxes should limit us – we need to be consistent for success. But the authors found that wasn’t true and when they trained individuals to be paradoxical thinkers their performance improved.

In the book, they quote U.S. sprinter Michael Johnson, who said to hit world record speeds in the 400-metre dash you need aggression and relaxation. They point out that Microsoft chairman Bill Gates had been called, by writer Stewart Alsop, a “practical visionary.” They note that some people might argue he would have been more successful if he was more definitively one side of the paradox undiluted by the other, but they disagree.
 
“Consider what would happen if Bill Gates didn’t have both strengths. If he just focused on being visionary, sensing where technology is leading but unable to guide Microsoft to get products into the marketplace in a timely manner, Microsoft would not be the number one player in the industry. Similarly, if he only focused on creating and getting practical products out to market, he might miss a key shift in the direction of technology’s development, and other companies could seize the lead,” they write. Of course, since their book came out, Steve Jobs may have out-paradoxed Bill Gates into technology leadership.

Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton was also a paradox. David Glass, who at the time of the book’s writing was CEO of the discount retailer, said Walton was relentless, and if others brushed aside an idea he felt was right, he would keep coming back at it, week after week after week, until everyone capitulated. But at the same time, he noted that when Walton saw he was wrong on something, it never bothered him, and he moved on comfortably in another direction. Jim Walton described his father as being incredibly flexible. So again, a paradoxical blend that the authors feel contributed to Sam Walton’s success: at times relentless and determined, and at others flexible, two traits that allowed his company to grow. With only one of those traits, perhaps Wal-Mart would not be what it is today.

One of the towering political figures of the past two decades has been Bill Clinton, who like Jobs has been a bundle of contradictions. A review of a biography by David Maranis described Clinton’s “sincerity and calculation, his boldness and cowardice, his calm and his temper tantrums, his loyalty and his infidelities.” Maranis had written: “It is often tempting, but usually misleading, to try to separate the good from the bad, to say that the part of him that is indecisive, too eager to please and prone to deception, is more revealing of the inner man than the part of him that is indefatigable, intelligent, empathetic, and self-deprecating. They co-exist.”

Like Jobs, Gates, Walton and Clinton, you can also take advantage of paradoxical thinking, the authors argue, and they present a five-step process for achieving powerful inconsistency. It starts with identifying your core personal paradox. You want to list your personal qualities and characteristics, using the phrases or words that people who know you best would use to describe you – not just the individuals who like you, but also the folks who dislike you. If you have a significant characteristic in mind but no single word captures it, use several words. “It is important that you not reject descriptive words or phrases that you dislike. If a word could be used by you or someone else, even in a small way, to describe you, jot it down at this point,” they stress.

Renee, an example they cite, developed a list of 24 characteristics, including careful, take-charge, insecure, overachiever, talented, cautious, vague and goal-directed. She then marked with an asterisk the words or phrases that described qualities she liked about herself and with an X the ones she disliked.

The idea is then to combine these personal qualities and characteristics into paradoxical pairs, using oxymorons. You need to make as many paradoxical combinations as possible, typically by combining one positive item with a negative. So Renee is a careful risktaker, self-doubting overachiever, vague analyst, meticulous planner, and take-charge namby-pamby.
 
This step closes by picking your core personal paradox, the one from the list that has deepest meaning for you because it describes a central conflict or tension you struggle with. For Renee, it was self-doubting over-achiever.

The next step in the process, perception shifting, involves expanding your understanding of your core personal paradox. You need to list the positives of the preferred side, the negatives of that preferred side, the negatives of the disliked side, and positives of the disliked side. With all those choices before you, the authors want you to pick from the positives of both sides of your core personal paradox, to determine what they call your high-performance oxymoron. If people can be highly effective when they use both sides of their contradictory nature simultaneously, and there are positives even to the side of your core personal paradox that you had viewed bleakly, you are proposing a double-barrelled positive that when harnessed can help you in your daily life.

For example, Renee, at her best as a self-doubter, is thoroughly prepared. At her best as an achiever, she is expectations-oriented. So together, her high performance oxymoron – when she will be at her best – is as a thoroughly-prepared expectations exceeder. Her nightmare oxymoron, developed by combining the negatives of both sides of her paradox, which she has to beware of, is a hopeless wheel spinner.

That’s quite insightful and helpful, even if you stop at this point. The authors continue by asking you in the next step to pick an important, current problem that is not going as well as you would like. Renee was preoccupied with whether to continue working at a bank or leave to start a floral design business, and she outlined the issues bedevilling her.

She then moved on to the next step, assessing how well she was using her core paradoxical qualities in addressing the problem or goal selected. The authors call this Fletcher’s Pendulum: imagine a string hanging from a nail, with a weight on the bottom, and a pendulum swinging between both sides of your oxymoron as you wrestle with your problem. Renee swings at the extremes on her self-doubting side from thoroughly prepared to hopeless. On her overachiever side she swings from expectations exceeder to wheel spinner.<

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