The executive on the other end of the phone sighed loudly. It’s been an intense week, he confessed. There are two extreme positions on the community issue that I told you about last time, and interestingly, both sides seek the same ultimate outcome. But they cannot see the value in the other side. They are polarized and I find myself in the middle, creating a coalition of some very interesting bedfellows. While the leader’s situation was made extreme by the statewide media coverage exacerbating the interactions, the binary pull that he was experiencing was not unique. Many of us face the natural tension between seeming opposites such as short-term and long-term gain, continuity and change, candor and diplomacy, and yet somehow we must find a way to honor both in our daily lives. Counter-intuitively, true freedom and peace lies not in the boundary setting against the opposing force, but in the higher integration of the two poles.
When we are faced with a situation that has no real long-term solution, which requires keeping two or more conflicting forces in balance, we have stumbled upon a paradox. How do you keep heads down focused on efficient task execution while being heads up focused on what’s changing down the road? How do you honor the need for high quality and keep the cost as low as possible at the same time? How do you remain grounded in your strengths while stretching yourself to grow beyond your core strengths? These are all paradoxes, which present us with an illusion of separate, binary forces that seemingly have no point of integration.
And yet, when we slow down to listen deeply to both sides, it becomes apparent that the two opposites are reaching for a similar goal, or reacting against a common, deeper fear. Global integration and local differentiation both seek to grow the business and avoid market irrelevance. Continuity and change both want to find pathways to thrive and avoid destruction.
When we step back, name the two opposing forces with neutrality, map out what higher goal unites the two sides, and clarify the advantages and disadvantages to both, we gain altitude on the paradoxical pull. This blurring of positional boundaries then softens our gaze and helps us suspend judgment against the side we may be pushing against. Neutrality generates choice and innovation.
As the executive and I concluded our call, I sat back to reflection the powerful stance he was holding and the positive effect it could have in his community. By naming the paradox, gaining altitude on the situation and calling those entrenched in opposition to seek choices that balanced the natural tensions and trade offs, he was integrating opposites and generating new possibilities instead of replaying history. Increased freedom and innovation await him and us, as we merge what seemingly cannot be merged.