Book review: Paradoxical Leadership

Paradoxical leadership is about harnessing the power of opposites, a theme of the ages. But at the moment it is also extremely relevant now that we in the Netherlands and the rest of the world seem to be heading more and more towards an ‘either-or’ way of thinking. Contrasts are becoming greater and opinions more extreme. Instead of focusing on similarities, differences are magnified. This makes it feel like we’re losing our grip. It’s time for ‘and-and’-oriented people who want to connect and who are able to recognise and unite the good elements of both extremes. Time for a book that guides us and shows us how.

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAjPAAAAJDE0MTAwN2NlLTJiZmMtNDgxYi1iMDUyLTkzYWYxNDlmYWYxOAEvery action leads to its opposite. The more dominant the focus on speed, the more important the perception of slowness. The more you are waited on hand and foot, the more you want to do yourself. As control increases, the urge to break the rules grows. The more intense the mass production, the greater the desire for individualisation. And that is precisely what Ivo Brughmans’ book Paradoxical Leadership is all about.

The book was born out of a sense of necessity on the part of the author. Necessity because the dominant paradigm of ‘either-or’ thinking is woefully inadequate. The problems in today’s society and organisations cannot be solved if we continue to view them as plain and straightforward ‘either-or’ choices: either control or empowerment, either cost savings or innovation, either inspiration-driven or market-driven innovation…

Paradoxical Leadership consists of two parts. Part 1. ‘in the lab’, aims to immerse the reader in this other, often unusual way of thinking in terms of ‘and-and’. In this part a conceptual framework is established that describes what paradoxes and polarities are and how they work. This is followed by the problem statement: why does traditional ‘either-or’ thinking fall short? The author then explains ‘and-and’ thinking, and why it should be applied in today’s world.

Part 2, ‘in the workplace’, is about applying an ‘and-and’ perspective to a number of familiar management and business issues. These include determining the direction of an organisation, team or department and steering it accordingly, implementing changes, defining the point where individual and organisation intersect and identifying the competencies necessary for dealing with paradoxes.

In his book, Brughmans offers examples, exercises and ways to translate the concepts into practice. The book contains another very practical resource in the form of text boxes with key points from what has been covered in each chapter. There is no doubt whatsoever that Brughmans is extremely knowledgeable in the subject. I actually think that by writing it all down, he himself has gained a deeper understanding of the subject as well. Putting observations on paper allows you to relive thoughts and experiences, thus delving deeper into their meaning.

As a reader, though, I feel the need to have an even more in-depth look , to obtain more specific insights into differences between sectors, types of organisational structures, cultures etc. At times the content of the book seems to be its own paradox in some respects. In describing the importance of ‘and-and’ thinking and a smooth shift between opposites, it gives the impression that most organisations and managers are only capable of ‘either-or’ thinking. The book thus tends slightly towards a black-and-white mindset, even though many department managers and management boards are perfectly equipped to shift between opposites if circumstances require them to do so.

In any case, the book certainly does encourage reflection and introspection. Am I as a manager able to shift between opposites as smoothly as I think? And how does my team experience this? How is my organisation being managed etc.? This makes the book good reading for every manager. Should one read the book and come to the conclusion that the organisation or department needs to be challenged in terms of ‘and-and’ thinking, then I think it would be wise to contact Brughmans. A deep-rooted problem in this regard cannot be solved on paper, but instead requires a thorough intervention.

 Mireille Schrijnemaekers is Marketing Manager at Pon’s Automobiel Handel and has over 20 years of professional experience at large national and international organisations, including EY, Capgemini, Vodafone, KPN, Eurofiber, SNS Bank and Ziggo. Read more of her reviews, in Dutch, here.


Post Your Thoughts