Leadership and Paradox

Learning from the Complexities of Leading in Lockdown

Executive Head/CEO Odyssey Educational Trust

What I’ve learned during the lockdown period, is that sometimes you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. I’m dedicating this blog to all of the leaders in education who have silently, or perhaps very publicly, wrestled with their own divergent thinking and the resulting cognitive dissonance during lockdown. Decision making has never felt so critical, stakes have never been so high and public opinion has never been so…well..public! The added stress to the already high levels of accountability in the educational system which was already showing the fatigue failure of a 1970’s tower block, leads to the perfect accountability storm. 

I have noticed that lately, views on education have become more polarised and strong opinions have taken root more deeply. Education has always been subject to armchair expertise but this has increased during the recent pandemic crisis. In the words of Daniel Kahneman “We are prone to blame decision makers for decisions that worked out badly and to give them too little credit for successful moves that appear obvious only after the fact.”

Polarised Views Under Pressure

From within and from outside the profession, debate has at times raged around the issues created and exacerbated by the lockdown. Debates which are often polarised and opinions which are binary in nature. Views are very strongly held. I have noticed in both social and national media that the discussion platform has been reduced to right and wrong, good and bad leaders, weak or strong, disadvantage or privilege. However, we have forgotten, perhaps, that holding a viewpoint very strongly does not necessarily make it right. “We can be blind to the obvious and we are also blind to our blindness.” (Kahneman)

Leading from Dissonance

It is difficult for us to hold two or more conflicting views as humans and as leaders. We are hardwired for pattern and order. When faced with conflicting information or ideas, or opinions, we experience cognitive dissonance – the mental itch which requires constant scratching. With our most difficult decisions we may never feel fully satisfied. If you ever needed demonstration of this, the Twitter feed from school leaders the week before June 1st wider opening is a masterclass in the expression of intense cognitive dissonance in action. For example opening schools may have increased the rate of infection and been potentially harmful to the community’s health and well being, not opening schools may have disadvantaged some of our most vulnerable children and their families and may potentially have been even more damaging in the long term. There is essentially no “right” answer, there are advantages and disadvantages to both views and yet both outcomes cannot occur. Here’s the kicker… Ironically decision making becomes more complex and challenging when the pressure valve is turned up so high – the more anxious we are, the less well we cope with dissonance 

A common way we reduce dissonance is to align even more strongly to a chosen viewpoint and find more reasons to doubt the validity of the not chosen viewpoint. We are more comfortable when the answer is yes OR no…not yes AND no.

The Power of Paradox

The lockdown has given me many opportunities both in my professional and personal life to get more comfortable with paradoxical thinking. Essentially this is the capacity to hold two or more ideas which contradict each other yet both having merit depending on the perspective. In leadership and in life, this forces us to question our assumptions and find a different way of ordering our thinking. This holding of contradictory viewpoints or ideas is at the heart of creativity and problem solving. The ability to hold this tension makes us more compassionate leaders and thinkers. 

People are often infuriatingly paradoxical in nature, which can also be what underpins their success or completeness. In their book “Paradoxical Thinking” Fletcher and Olwyer give a detailed analysis of the contrasting and opposing nature of human success based on 15 years of research in this field, including many examples of where this is our greatest strength. 

We all know examples of leaders who are hesitant risk takers, self doubting over achievers or insecure towers of strength. Just as the human condition is contradictory and messy, so is leadership and decision making. Brene Brown gives a more lighthearted humanist look at this in her podcast with Jay and Mark Duplass, the Power of Paradox. “I think a lot about Carl Jung…he wrote that paradox is one of our most valued spiritual possessions because only paradox comes anywhere near the ability to comprehend the fullness of life.”

Teaching Paradoxical Thinking

Understanding that the ability to hold space for opposing viewpoints, characteristics and dispositions makes us better able to relate to ourselves and others is key. It also leads to the question of where in our Education system we give space for this kind of thinking and discussion? How deliberately do we teach and model this within the school curriculum? Has the lockdown experience made this more important to include in our schools?

One of our curriculum ‘Intentions’ at our Trust is for pupils to leave us as free thinkers. This is hugely important to us and is a cornerstone of our culture. The curriculum is designed so that it facilitates debate and the analysis of knowledge (the difference between knowledge and wisdom). It provides structures for children to express and hear conflicting ideas in safety. An example of this is that 4 years ago we removed the vast majority of whole school assemblies in favour of smaller community circles which explore life’s big questions and allow us to share the viewpoints which may be brave, perhaps even at times extreme or not politically correct. Because, if we do not allow children a safe space to explore their opinions, they are even more likely to become entrenched. 

In thinking about the curriculum lessons from lockdown and observing the fallout of when opinions are narrowed and tolerance is low, I have been drawn to reflect on our school ethos and curriculum. One of the aspects of the curriculum that is the most powerful within the Trust is that of ‘Dialogic Teaching’. Making meaning is a collective and social phenomenon; the space between what is known and what is not yet known. We actively encourage thinking which promotes dissonance, brings paradox to life and scaffolds children’s thinking and uses these opportunities to solve problems and flex their creativity. When this is rooted in rigorous subject knowledge, the result is not only deeper learning but a mindset which accepts paradox and perhaps is more likely to embrace tolerance.

Lessons for Leadership

If moving away from reductive yes/no debates and solutions and celebrating the power of paradox is a quality we want to see in future citizens, the challenge for me is how do we model and facilitate this in our own and others leadership? 

My lockdown lessons include trying to embrace conflicting states of mind, characteristics and viewpoints. While this feels awkward and uncomfortable, it is definitely where the growth lies. As leaders, and if we work in education I believe that we are ALL leaders, how do we model the capacity to hold space for conflicting viewpoints. How do we accept and even enjoy the messy and complex nature of leadership qualities such as the ‘self doubting over achiever’. Perhaps our role is to find a way to straddle paradox in our personal and professional lives, get comfortable with the uncomfortable and find common ground, new solutions, and ultimately a better understanding of ourselves and others. I hope that one of the lessons from the lockdown period is that leaders need to embrace the exciting complexities of paradox!

Related post

We need to rethink the purpose of education: it is students with the habits and dispositions of powerful learners who thrive in lockdown and in life

Rachel Macfarlane

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