The Paradoxical Nature of Leadership

Leaders lead people. The challenge in leading is that people are paradoxes.

A paradox is a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory but in reality expresses a possible truth; any person, thing, or situation exhibiting an apparently contradictory nature.

People have amazing native power and capabilities, capable of accomplishing great and positive things. But they also have their negative sides – the very essence of paradoxical. There is some good in even the very worst people. There is some bad in even the very best people. The vast majority of people have far more positive than negative.

What People Really Need From Their Leaders

Ask people what they want out of life or in their jobs, and most will tell you things like happiness, peace, comfort, no problems, money, nice things, no stress or upsets, an easy life, everything running perfectly, “the good life.” Most people say they want life and their jobs to be like this and other similar things. Of course, there are exceptions, but the majority of people would answer this way.

Here is the paradox: Regardless of what most people say, the truth is that people need challenges and a purpose to be truly happy and healthy. People need a certain amount of necessity and tension in their lives – not too much and not too little. When life is too easy, people become miserable, unhappy, dissatisfied, ill.

Don’t believe this? Take a look at the young men and women who are children of extremely wealthy parents, teenagers, and adults who were given the very best of everything, children who were handed all of life on a silver platter, not having to work or strive for anything. An unusually high percentage of these people have some of the highest incidence of mental health problems, substance addictions and misery of anyone in the world. One would think that being born into great wealth – having magnificent homes, cars, the finest food, and clothing, all the material goodies – would be an automatic ticket to happiness and a fun life.

The opposite is true all too often. Many of these people are unhappy by the time they reach their teenage or young adult years. Not all, of course, but a significant percentage of people who were born into great wealth have mental health problems, substance abuse problems, a lack of self-esteem, and are miserable.

A paradox. How can this be?

Challenge Your People Positively and Constructively

People need challenges in their lives. People need to work for something, people need a worthwhile purpose, people need a little tension and necessity in their lives in order to be happy, healthy and fulfilled. People even need a few problems to solve here and there. When people are handed everything they need without having to do anything in exchange, they go downhill rapidly. When people are handed everything without having to work for it, they feel useless, incompetent and unworthy. When people are given everything for free, they never have the opportunity to use and develop their native abilities and power.

Thus, they stagnate, and their native capabilities atrophy.

Thus, they lose their self-esteem and confidence and feel like frauds.

There is other evidence that people need challenges in their lives to be happy and healthy. Study after study shows that a higher percentage of people die within 2 years after retirement than would be expected. There are various reasons given for this, but my belief and that of many researchers is that when people retire with no other purpose or challenge in their lives, they die sooner than people who have something to live for or something they must do to survive.

People don’t do well if they are given everything, if they don’t work for anything, if there are no challenges to overcome, if they can’t help others.

People do best – emotionally and mentally – when they are given a healthy amount of challenges, and when they are inspired and even driven to use their imaginations and native capabilities to produce at high standards. They are unhappy and sick without challenges and purpose.

Innovation itself stems from a desire to do or make things better.

Your Responsibility As A Leader

It is your responsibility as a leader to challenge your people, and give them a healthy dose of goals and targets to accomplish daily.

It is a sure road to management death and failure if a leader makes everything too easy for his or her people. You will fail if you don’t give your people just the right amount of challenges, purpose, and goals to accomplish. The trend in business today is toward creating better working environments for people. The trend is to take better care of employees and empower them more and more. I agree with all these trends, and in fact, have incorporated those principles in my own businesses for 25 years. The other side of that same coin is to make sure you, as a leader, always keep in mind the reason you are leading – it is to get something done, to get something accomplished, to achieve some goals. You are not leading people just to give them the most pleasant and beautiful working environment.

It’s all well and good to treat your people very, very well, to care for them, to give them the best possible working conditions. At the same time, you must also drive your people to reach for their very best, you must set high standards and insist that your people achieve and maintain those high standards. You must manage, coordinate and direct your people to produce at high levels, do their jobs very, very well, and reach their goals,

Challenge your people every day – but in a positive, constructive and inspiring manner and with excellent communication, understanding, development and help.

This is the paradoxical nature of leadership, the push-pull that people need to be productive and professionally satisfied.

If you don’t do these things, your business will struggle or even go bankrupt.


Joe Kerner
Joe Kerner
Joe Kerner has been a business owner and management consultant for 30 years. He has worked with hundreds of businesses, business owners and executives, spanning several industries and professions. He is a recognized expert in such areas as leadership, management, organizational development, efficiency, personnel development and training, sales training and business planning. He has helped his client business increase their profitability, growth, efficiency, and productivity. He has consulted and coached businesses in such industries as health care, software development, biotech, construction, financial services, scientific instrument firms, systems analysis, travel, hospitals, and insurance. Joe is also an accomplished speaker and has delivered over 1,100 seminars and workshops covering such areas as leadership and management, operations, personnel development, and efficiency. In 1998, Joe was a co-founder of a very successful health care group in Virginia and North Carolina. He served as Vice President of Operations and managed the entire group. Under his leadership, this group increased revenue by 300-400% within three years. This group was sold for a high profit in 2013. Joe holds a Master of Science degree in Engineering from Johns Hopkins University. He has also completed an extensive and rigorous management training program, the Organization Executive Course. This is an intensive 2,000-hour curriculum covering the fundamental principles, technology and advanced systems of management, leadership, organization, executive training, personnel development and management, management tools, marketing, and sales.

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  1. Dear Joe Kerner.
    Just love your article which really speaks to my heart and mirrors so many of my personal experiences. Back in the school days as a child we were given assignments as: write about your holiday! I hated these assignements as my family was poor and we never went anywhere on holidays. Instead real essay assignments as my older siblings got interested me a lot – I wanted to write about my interests, which were France throwing atomic bombs in the pacific ocean, apartheid in South Africa etc….but these were not the standards. And this experience has always accompanied me with the knowledge: if you pose a stupid or indifferent question – expect a stupid or indifferent answer!
    We really need to raise the standards in the workplace and leaders must be show the way. All research shows that we lift ourselves when expectations are raised. This kind of personal growth raises spirits! If the mediocre is acceptable – then mediocre is what you get! We certainly thrive by accomplishing things and overcoming barriers. It is the fuel that motivates us to aim even higher as we increase self-esteen, confidense and build a sense of self-worth along the journey. Thanks for sharing your thoughs on this important matter.

    Best wishes
    CEO at ManageMagazine

    • Thank you very much for sharing some of your experiences, Vibeke. I appreciate all that you wrote. You are so right that most people will lift themselves to higher expectations.

  2. Ah, Joe! You’re preaching to the choir here, as they say. I could so easily have turned out differently, if my mother had had her way — she wanted a princess. Tiara and all. She wanted a daughter who would be popular, who would have adoring friends, a huge social circle — I’m serious here. She wanted for me (an adopted daughter) all the things she had missed in her sad childhood.

    My dad, on the other hand, knew that to grow up to be a good person I needed to know about the real world. I worked in our stores — in the stock room, which my mother said was “beneath” me! — for a couple of years from 15-17 … then as a sales clerk. Nothing was given to me, even though my last name was on the sign outside our small women’s clothing stores.

    Fast-forward to today. At 73 — yup — I’m still following my dad’s model of finding meaningful work, overcoming challenges, making a difference. Helping others. Getting up each morning with a purpose in mind. And I hope to be doing this for another 30+/- years.

    I would hope all leaders would see this as true — we thrive when we see what we’ve accomplished! Large or small, our results are measures that we can look to with pride.

  3. Joe, Great points. Leaders need to align people around a desired goal, mission or outcome. The recent attention to workplace enhancements misses the point that leaders can excel in difficult circumstances as anyone who was even in a foxhole can tell you.l