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When Both Sides are Right – The Problem of Paradox

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function

F Scott Fitzgerald
45Photo by Inera Isovic on Unsplash

A number of years ago, I was fortunate to attend the Governing Family Enterprise Program at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.  One of the core concepts the faculty covered in the program was the role of paradox in the family system.

While the concept of a paradox (“a situation that combines contradictory features or qualities”) is by no means new, most often in today’s world, it is used as a dismissive bit of rhetoric to avoid digging deeper on an issue.  In our polarized times, the nuance embedded in paradox (and as highlighted by the Fitzgerald quote) is down right uncomfortable.  It is far easier to retreat to the social media echo-chamber of our preferred viewpoint. 

And yet paradoxes are all around us.  One helpful resource – Authors Kelly Lewis and Brian Emerson address this in greater detail in her Navigating Polarities: Using Both/And Thinking to Lead Transformation.  Family enterprises have a number of paradoxes they are managing at any given time.  Success of the family vs. success of the business; tradition vs. innovation; current generation leadership vs. next generation leadership; distributions of capital vs. retention of capital – just to name a few.  Each side of those paradoxes is in fact important and necessary for the family’s continued success.

While paradoxes are often treated in an adversarial manner, it is important both to recognize the falseness of such a dichotomy. As well as realize that we have a preferred point of view that unchecked wants to overrun the other.

There is much more to consider here obviously, but for the rest of this piece, I’d like to consider one paradox in the family enterprise world – Desires of the Whole vs. Desire of the Individual.   Does the family focus on maximizing the good of the system overall, or maximizing the good for each individual? 

This is delicate ground for sure.  Many family enterprises, we at FCS have spent time with, are great because the health of the family overall has become core to the family system.  There is an ‘otherness’ orientation that has become core to the value of the family.  This attitude leads to the sense of responsibility and shared sacrifice required to build enduring institutions. 

And yet, a family so focused on the good of the family, and not simultaneously supportive of the good of the individual, is playing with fire.   Newspaper stories abound of families where an individual’s desire to subordinate self for the greater good reaches a breaking point. When that happens, the gloves can come off to catastrophic effect.

Conversely, a family where individualism reigns supreme, and extreme individualism may even be lauded, runs just as great a risk.  For self-independence and self-maximization to such a degree is unreconcilable with the interconnectedness required for the system to continue to function. 

So what to do? 

In dealing with such circumstances, I have found the following steps to be helpful.  First, call it what it is.  Recognize that it is a paradox, and is ultimately not going to be entirely reconcilable.  That is not to meant to be an excuse for not moving forward, but is a mandate to recognize that the terrain ahead is challenging.

Second, recognize your bias on a view.  We all enter most paradoxes with a preferred view.  In fact, most personality tests are basically a collection of paradoxes that sort people based on preference.  Heed the Oracle’s maxim to Know Thyself.

Third, realize that paradox points are opportunities for tremendous creativity.   The world of improv comedy calls this the “Yes And” of improv.  When a participant is offered a situation, they affirm the situation receive and then add to it. 

The key is finding ways to discharge the emotional intensity embedded in most paradoxes to allow for such creativity, and dare we say, playfulness to emerge to design the novel structures required to navigate the paradox for the family.

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