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The five paradoxical mindsets of future-fit leadership

In an excerpt from her book Ruthlessly Caring: And Other Paradoxical Mindsets Leaders Need to be Future Fit, Amy Walters Cohen reveals five things that leaders need to embrace to thrive.

Performance amidst today’s megatrends hinges on a leader’s ability to think and lead in a way that is ruthlessly caring, ambitiously appreciative, politically virtuous, confidently humble and responsibly daring.

To become future-fit, the best leaders will learn to combine all these different mindsets within their approach. This means embracing the core tension within each mindset and integrating the whole spectrum of behaviors required.

Ruthlessly caring

Mindset tension: I make the tough decisions necessary to drive results and remain compassionate, no matter what.

Behaviors: Ruthlessly caring leaders are performance-focused and driven to achieve results. They are challenging and willing to make decisions that have a tough human impact. They also deeply care about people, always show compassion, treat others with respect, are highly supportive, provide the feedback people need (but may not want) to hear and never shy away from the tough emotional conversations.

Ambitiously appreciative

Mindset tension: I must be relentless, determined and retain a sense of perspective and balance.

Behaviors: Ambitiously appreciative leaders are highly driven, never satisfied and in the habit of perpetual striving and yet retain a sense of perspective and appreciate life outside work. They give 110 percent, set demanding objectives, deeply value their own and others’ wellbeing, celebrate performance as well as attainment and appreciate the moments that matter outside work.

Politically virtuous

Mindset tension: I always try to do the right thing at the first opportunity and be politically savvy in the circumstances.

Behaviors: Politically virtuous leaders are canny, genuine and have integrity. They influence others, live their values (that is, they are willing to make a stand for what they believe and lead by example), are transparent with people and can judge when telling everyone everything would be counterproductive.

Confidently humble

Mindset tension: I inspire others to have confidence in my ability and know I cannot achieve ambitious goals on my own.

Confidently humble leaders are self-assured, decisive and driven to learn from others.

Behaviors: Confidently humble leaders are self-assured, decisive and driven to learn from others. They know they must be credible in their role and inspire others to have confidence in them (that is, to believe in their vision, back their decisions and trust in their overall ability to deliver results). They also know they cannot achieve ambitious goals alone, are willing to be vulnerable, are open about their limitations, surround themselves with experts, are inspired by others and value everyone’s ideas and opinions.

Responsibly daring

Mindset tension: I believe everything is worth trying and anything is possible and stay accountable for making a difference and safeguarding the business.

Behaviors: Responsibly daring leaders set bold, audacious, ‘seemingly impossible’ goals. They are willing to take risks and feel responsible for making a difference and safeguarding the business. They are pragmatic visionaries: highly optimistic and, at the same time, realistic about what can and needs to be achieved. They are future-focused, driven to innovate and continuously striving to transform their business – and the world – for the better.


What exactly is a paradox?

As Brian Emerson and Kelly Lewis explain in their book, Navigating Polarities, a paradox is a situation in which two seemingly opposite yet independent states need to coexist over time in order for success to occur.

The key point to emphasize here is ”seemingly opposite yet independent”.

On the first reading of the five mindsets, the pairs of elements appear contradictory. They seem like opposites, like two opposing ends of the same spectrum. But that is a false interpretation.

A paradox is a situation in which two seemingly opposite yet independent states need to coexist over time in order for success to occur.

In fact, each paradoxical mindset has two distinct, but connected, elements that need to coexist for high performance to occur. Confidence and humility, for example, are not the two extremes of the same construct. They are two separate constructs that can and must coexist. Each element has its own separate continuum, that is, a confidence continuum and a humility continuum, and there is a sweet spot to be found within both.

As well as noting that the two constructs within each paradoxical mindset are simultaneously distinct and connected, it is important to clarify three further points about paradoxes from the outset:

  1. You cannot solve them. Paradoxes can never be solved. They can only ever be actively managed. A paradox means you are facing demands that are contradictory but interdependent, constituting a persistent tension over time. Any impression that the paradox has somehow been resolved neatly and no longer requires navigating is therefore an illusion. Leaders can become more adept at managing paradoxes, harnessing certain tensions to enhance performance, but the requirement to navigate the paradox will never disappear.
  2. It is not about dialing one side up and the other down at different moments. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that managing paradoxes is just about dialing two competing elements up or down at different moments. This is a misunderstanding. The beauty of the paradox is that the two elements are distinct. This means it is not either/or at different moments, but both/and at every moment.
  3. The five paradoxical mindsets are not an exhaustive list. In complex systems, paradoxes abound. These seemingly opposite yet independent pairs are everywhere, influencing performance at an organizational, team and individual level. Senior leaders will be familiar with common business tensions, such as the need for change and stability, structure and flexibility, exploration and exploitation, collaboration and competition. However, as a leader, you should also be on the lookout for the paradoxical tensions required from you personally. These five mindsets are a starting point. They are not an exhaustive list of all the paradoxes you will come across and need to navigate at a very personal level. Take it as a challenge to identify others.


Amy Walters Cohen is a Head of Research at EY – one of the largest professional services networks in the world – and responsible for delivering rigorous, cutting-edge thought leadership insight into pressing business issues. With nearly 10 years’ experience working in applied psychology, she has led an array of research projects and generated fresh insight into topic areas including the future of leadership, digital transformation, the future of learning, hybrid working, 21st century career development, organizational culture change and team performance in a disruptive age.

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