Paradox is as confusing as quantum physics. Unlike quantum physics, one does not need to master advanced mathematics to comprehend the machinations of paradox. Rather, one merely needs attention and sensitivity.

I find it useful to think of paradox as a relative of the ancient philosophical concept of “Yin and Yang”. (See the image associated to this Nugget.)

Though Yin and Yang is a philosophical concept, it’s existence is manifest in almost every thought and action. Let’s use Yin and Yang as our gateway to help us better appreciate how paradox can exist in business.

Yin and yang essentially suggests that opposites exist within each state.

  • Within “maleness” there exists the seed of “femaleness”; in “femaleness”, the seed of “maleness”.
  • Within strength, the seed of weakness; weakness, strength.
  • Within success, the seed of failure; failure, the seed of success.
  • Within leadership, the seed of follower-ship; within follower-ship, the seed of leadership.
  • Within innovation, the conventional; conventional, innovation.
  • Within motivation, discouragement; discouragement, motivation.

Now, let’s examine some instances where Paradox can apply to business affairs.

A leader must lead. Tombs have been written on the subject of leadership, all of which I will summarize into one simple phrase. Leaders must push. Yet, if a leader pushes too hard, progress is slowed or even reversed. That’s the manifestation of paradox, of Yin and Yang. On the other hand, if a leader learns to not push too hard, progress can be accelerated. Paradox suggests a leader must be sensitive to the impact that his or her pushing will have on the team or organization.

Successful leaders learn to push but not to push too hard.

Some additional examples of paradox in the workplace:

  • Knowledge workers must do as they are told. Yet, if they do as they are told, careers stagnate. Worse, those very same conforming workers could get fired because they did not perform at an exceeds/exceptional level. Paradox.
  • Leaders must innovate to survive into the future and to grow profitability. If innovation becomes too prominent, profitability deteriorates and the firm can implode. Paradox.
  • To accelerate your career, you have to accumulate more responsibility, authority, power and influence. Doing that, though, can get you fired. Paradox.
  • To work well within a team, you have to blend in and become “one of the gang”. Yet, the team expects you to have your own personality and be unique. Paradox.
  • A company that takes the world by storm with an innovative product builds so much of the future around that innovation that the company eventually fails. Paradox.
  • To succeed, you must fail. Paradox.

That last point is often interpreted as “Try. Try. Then try again.”  But that’s not quite “it”. There’s more to the story, so to say. From each failure one must grow to understand not only what does not work but also what does work. Leaders must learn to “see” the role paradox plays when something fails despite the fact that everything about it, and everything done, was irrefutably logical.

Why does an activity fail if everything done was precisely what needed to be done?

Leaders can learn to “see” the impact of paradox on their decisions and projects by doing  post-mortemsSee End Note  of their failures. From those post-mortems they may discover that mere minor corrections were required and that success is within arms reach. Perhaps just a wee bit more awareness, sensitivity and flexibility can spell the difference between failure and success. Sometimes, though, wholesale changes must be made and managerial egos over-ruled.

Before leaving this subject, let’s examine a very brief case analysis of a common situation among knowledge workers.

Knowledge workers who read about, or are mentored about, succeeding in business, often fail to achieve their career objective(s), or may even get fired, when implementing the very sound advice they studied or received because they lack the sensitivity to account for the nuances that occur daily within workplaces and among the personalities in those workplaces. Those who wrote or mentored may have mastered the very principles they advise about, but they may have succeeded after having failed numerous times and after having spent a lifetime of experimentation. Those advisers may have graduated from the “school of hard knocks” with a path, with answers, suited to their personalities and suited only to those who attended the same “school”. Many readers of their wisdom, or many receiving the wise advise of mentors, may not have graduated from that same “school” and are, therefore, rendered ineffectual at implementing those same “secrets of success” until they, too have their fair share of experimentation and failures. This phenomenon, also, is the manifestation of paradox.


Post-Mortems are essential for success. Knowing what does not work is as important as knowing what does. You may wish to read a previous Nugget on the topic of career success in which I discuss how Post-Mortems can affect the success of knowledge workers. [Click here to read more about Post-Mortems: ]