Is leadership harder today that it was in the past? I think so. A few weeks ago, I led a leadership training for four new field leaders. As I surveyed the challenges they face and the expectations we have today of our field leaders, I noted that what they are being asked to do is significantly more difficult now than it has been in the past.

Technology raises expectations of leadership

Yes, today leaders have a host of technological tools available to help them communicate and organize and collaborate. But those same tools have also raised expectations of them. Those expectations are about how quickly and creatively they will communicate, how neatly and completely they will organize their work, and how broadly and fully they were collaborate with others. Ironically, that which should make leadership easier has also made it more challenging. This is a paradox of leadership today.

When I first took on a major field leadership role more than 30 years ago, I had neither email, Microsoft Teams nor even a cell phone for communication purposes. I did not even have a landline in my home. In some senses, maybe this should should have made leadership more difficult. But no one expected quick responses, regular check-ins or even monthly communication from me. Most of our decisions were made after months of deliberation and extensive discussion with several other mission leaders. The sending offices back in North America had no expectations that I would be involved in communicating with or facilitating vision trips for new missionary candidates before they arrived. It is hard to even imagine such limited communication from a mission leader today.

The demands of leadership today

Tim Elmore, author and founder / CEO of Growing Leaders, very much agrees that leadership is more difficult today than in the past. In his latest book, The Eight Paradoxes of Great Leadership: Embracing the Conflicting Demands of Today’s Workplace, he describes why great leadership today is so demanding. The book was published in November 2021. So, it was written in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID has definitely added to the challenges that mission leaders face today. But the challenges of leadership today are not only due to the pandemic.

Leadership is seldom easy, but today it affords us the challenge of collaborating with a more educated, more entitled, more savvy population that has greater expectations of satisfaction and rewards than in past generations. Uncommon leaders stand out because they are able to juggle seemingly contradictory traits to lead such people.

Elmore, Tim. The Eight Paradoxes of Great Leadership (pp. 9-10).

A new type of leader

Elmore says that we live in a complex age which requires a new type of leader. The author then describes this new type of leader that the author is seeing emerging in this day and age. He does so by showing that these leaders are displaying various pairs of seemingly contradictory traits, which Elmore calls paradoxes. Elmore describes eight such paradoxical pairs. For each, he gives an example of this uncommon leadership. The number of key leadership examples is actually nine if you include John Maxwell, who has been Tim Elmore’s mentor for decades. Maxwell wrote the foreword and is mentioned frequently throughout the book.

I would agree that each of these paradoxical leadership trait pairs are necessary for leadership today. But I am not as convinced that the necessity of mastering these leadership paradoxes is unique to today. It seems to me that great leaders throughout the ages have been able to demonstrate that they understood and practiced these paradoxes. To prove that point, the example that the author provides for the seventh paradox was a leader in the abolitionist movement in the 19th century.

A previous blog post of mine entitled “Wearing Multiple Hats” talked about another reason why leadership in the missions sphere is so demanding. In that post as well, I noted that this requirement to fulfill multiple roles at the same time is not unique to our age.

The paradoxes of great leadership

Nevertheless, Elmore is right in saying that uncommon leadership requires balancing two opposing characteristics. Here are the eight paradoxes that Elmore describes. He devotes a chapter to each.

Uncommon leaders:Primary example of this paradox in leadership
Balance both confidence and humilityBob Iger, former CEO of Walt Disney
Leverage both their vision and their blind spotsSara Blakely, creator of Spanx, who founded the company at 29
Embrace both visibility and invisibilityMartin Luther King Jr.
Are both stubborn and open-mindedTruett Cathy, founder of Chick Fillet
Are both deeply personal and inherently collective.Mother Theresa
Are both teachers and learnersAngela Ahrendts, CEO of Burberry, the luxury coat manufacturer and seller
Model both high standards and gracious forgivenessHarriet Tubman, leader in the Underground Railroad and an American abolitionist and political activist
Are both timely and timelessWalt Disney
Uncommon Leaders – Eight Paradoxes

Elmore shows why each of the two sides of the paradox are important for great leadership. Then in each chapter, he provides a list of ideas of how to be a leader that demonstrates both sides. So, the book is intensely practical. It provides both a list of ideas of how to implement this type of paradoxical leadership as well as giving great examples of where this uncommon leadership was practiced.

Some explanatory notes

Most of the paradoxes are self-explanatory. So I will just a few explanatory notes for some of the paradoxes which are not quite so clear.

How can blind spots be leveraged (second paradox)? Here, Elmore is talking about the advantage of not knowing much about how things are supposed to be done, and therefore being willing to try something new. New leaders can often generate new and unconventional ideas simply because they are not hampered by conventional wisdom and experience.

Invisibility (third paradox) is referring to the need to step out of the limelight to allow those we have mentored and trained to develop confidence in their own leadership.

The paradox of being both collective and personal (fifth paradox) is referring to the need to both grasp the big picture but also be able to empathize with the individual.

Being both timely and timeless (eight paradox) means standing true to personal and organizational values while at the same time continually seeking to update strategies and methods.

The need to be teachable

A theme that flows throughout the book is the importance of being teachable as a leader. The author devotes a whole chapter to teach-ability in paradox #6 (both teachers and learners). But he also mentions the need to be teachable in paradox #1, as key to demonstrating humility. Elmore talks about being teachable again in paradox #2 as he talks about how to leverage blind spots. Being teachable is a clear demonstration of being open-minded (paradox #4). Finally paradox #8 requires the ability to learn both from the past and also about new possibilities and strategies for the future.

An introduction to leadership

I think this book is a great introduction to the complexity of leadership. No one reading the book would conclude that serving as a leader is an easy task. But at the same time, Elmore challenges new leaders to step up to the challenge of providing this type of uncommon leadership. The many examples and practical suggestions for leading in these paradoxical ways inspire new and experienced leaders alike. Despite the emphasis on the difficulty of leading in today’s world, I did not find it to be a discouraging read. A young leader whom I have been mentoring has also found it to be challenging and inspiring. In fact, we are discussing a chapter of the book each month in our mentoring meetings.