The way out of this divisive political climate? Think like a business leader.

Arnold Palmer famously called golf “deceptively simple and endlessly complicated,” which made it, he said, the greatest game ever invented.


In truth, he could have been talking about politics, where the deceptively simple goal of making the country successful often devolves into endlessly complicated ideals and goals and–more often than not these days–divisive and hurtful rhetoric.


Politicians can take a lesson on this front from the business world by learning how the most effective leaders think–and more importantly, how they can hold two competing thoughts in their head at the same time.


The principles of paradox-based leadership can help us clear a path through this divisive political environment.


To teach my students how to think like a leader, we talk a lot about paradox-based leadership. I point to Apple, for instance. Apple has a goal of maximizing the return on products–that is, selling a lot of iPods. But at the same time, they must never assume we will keep buying iPods forever, so they must find new products or services to offer. While they are selling their current product, they are finding ways to make that product obsolete. Apple’s leadership team must balance both of these things well to be successful.


In fact, the framers of our government, adorned as they were in white wigs and powdered hair, understood and embraced paradox. The democracy they created not only serves the will of the majority, but also restricts the ability of the majority–in the Bill of Rights–to oppress minority groups. They gave some power to the federal government but maintained independent states. They understood the value of a strong executive branch–especially in times of war–but sought to limit the power of the executive to prevent tyranny. They had to find ways to achieve both ends–the essence of a paradox-based mindset.


It’s no secret that we’ve lost that ability. Princeton’s Dr. Sam Wang, a leading mind in electoral analysis, visited our campus before the Vice Presidential Debate earlier this month, and showed us data that suggest we are enduring a period of exceptional political polarization that has nearly paralyzed our legislative system. On the left and right, a significant number of people believe that if their party’s nominee isn’t elected, the destruction of America is nigh. Campaign trail rhetoric is not that of inclusion, compassion and empathy, but of division, fear and doom.


The task we face is moving beyond that. Based on research by Robert Quinn and associates, here are three things that paradox-savvy leaders must do:


Embrace paradox not as a source of frustration, but as a way of understanding and dealing with a complex reality. Sometimes competing options are good–a free and open society juxtaposed against a stout national defense, for example. Sometimes both options are unpleasant. The point is that, for the really big, complex issues that our elected leaders face every day, there isn’t a simple “correct” answer. They need to frame and reframe strategies as they read changing clues in their environment. Sometimes we need to emphasize the overall task, and at other times the welfare of a single individual. Making the case while understanding other viewpoints is critical.


Develop cognitive resources and skills necessary for handling paradox on a daily basis. Leadership of a global firm or a superpower is a big job that requires many different skills and perspectives. Researchers Streufert and Swezey found that cognitive complexity is associated with moderated attitudes, openness to disconfirming information and adjustment in thinking. At a time when attitudes are polarized instead of moderated, facts are rejected, and evolving thought is met with skepticism rather than trust, these values often seem less than worthy–but they are critical of any effective leader.


Keep things manageable. Seemingly intractable differences between two good alternatives must be framed in terms that allow for pursuit of both goals with the flexibility to alternate between the two. Quinn cites the following example from politics:


In his book Maps of the Mind, Charles Hampden Turner describes how defense hawks and doves perceived each other during the Vietnam War. Hawks saw themselves as patriotic and loyal, while doves viewed them as conforming, elite and militaristic. Conversely, doves viewed themselves as dissenters and champions of equality, while hawks viewed them as subversive and disloyal. The important thing to notice is that the split occurs in the language used. Leaders who embrace that paradox–recognizing that patriotism and dissent are both critical and important values–bridge the gap and honor both perspectives.


I tell my management students that they must find a way to be a boss without being bossy. They must manage in the short term and lead for the long term. They must provide a stable environment while being disruptive enough to dream up new products. Problems arise when leaders are focused on one pole or the other. Perhaps they do as Wells Fargo did and push too much for performance. Others create a comfortable environment and never push forward–who still uses a Blackberry?


For our country to break out of this divisive political climate, we need effective leaders who can bridge the gap and embrace the paradox.

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April 11, 2017

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