Jody Victor: The Paradox of Leadership

One of the most difficult things about understanding what makes a great leader is that often paradoxical or opposing styles of leadership can both work and work well. Michael Shinagel, the longest serving Dean in Harvard history, briefly discusses this paradox in his blog, “The Paradox of Leadership”.

Shinagel notes the very different styles of George C. Patton, who he describes as a “command and control” or a “lead me, follow me, or get out of my way” style leader and Nelson Mandela who Shinagel quotes:

“It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory[,] when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”

However, Shinagel also quotes Lao Tzu, who wrote, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Shinagel goes on to say that, “This is the art of leadership at its best: the art that conceals art.”

While Shinagel seems here purposefully vague, perhaps his meaning is that good leadership adapts to the context of the situation. Time, place, personalities, goals, and failures challenge all leaders. It is perhaps no surprise that Patton’s more aggressive style of leadership would lend itself to winning a war by force, while Mandela’s more passive approach would lend itself towards achieving peace and freedom.

What do you think? Is there answer to the paradox of leadership?