University of Delaware
Wendy Smith, assistant professor in the Lerner College, discusses paradoxical leadership at the Employee Development Roundtable.

Paradoxical leadership

Employee Development Roundtable offers leaders a method for approaching difficult dilemmas


8:27 a.m., May 18, 2012--Leaders face conflicting demands every day. Should they support the core business or seek innovation? Is it more important to encourage individuality or teamwork? Should they seek greater stability or more change? 

Instead of being forced into an "either/or" choice, leaders can learn to embrace "both/and," according to Wendy Smith, assistant professor of organizational behavior in the University of Delaware's Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

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“Paradoxical Leadership: Managing Leadership Dilemmas,” presented by Smith, was the topic of a recent University of Delaware Employee Development Roundtable. The roundtable provides a forum for human resource and training professionals in the region to discuss issues and share best practices. The event, held five times previously by the Division of Professional and Continuing Studies was co-sponsored on this occasion by the Lerner College and UD's Career Services Center.

Jim Broomall, assistant provost for professional and continuing studies, commented that the Employee Development Roundtable is “a great opportunity for the University of Delaware to reach out to regional employers for their input on the issues, trends and problems affecting them in the workplace.”

Matthew Brink, director of the Career Services Center, added, “We're delighted about working with Professional and Continuing Studies to co-sponsor the Employee Development Roundtable. Our partnership is geared toward ways that the employers that we both interact with can find expanded benefits from partnering with the University of Delaware.”

In her presentation, Smith focused on a new way of approaching difficult management decisions.  Instead of approaching a problem with an “A vs. B” or “either/or” mindset, Smith proposed a different idea:  “As I tell my students, whenever someone gives you a choice between A or B, choose C.”  According to Smith, this new thinking encourages leaders to explore options that identify alternatives and seek to create common ground.

Smith, who has master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard University, has focused much of her recent research on paradoxical approaches, which she defines as “ideas rational when independent of one another; contradictory and even ludicrous when side by side.”  However, from these paradoxes can come workable alternate solutions and creative integration. 

At the roundtable, Smith fielded several questions from the audience about her approach.  One participant wondered how a few people in management adopting this new problem-solving technique could bring the rest of the leadership along. Smith called this the “million dollar question,” and stressed that the lack of roadmap for this approach should not act as a deterrent.  Smith asserted that the either/or approach may have worked during simpler times but that today a new, creative way of thinking is needed.  “We live in a complex, dynamic, and global work force.  If we’re going to succeed we may need to rethink our leadership approaches to these new kinds of demands.”

For more information about the Employee Development Roundtable, contact George Irvine, associate director, Professional and Continuing Studies, at or 302-831-7858. 

Article by Andrew Coyle

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