Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

How to Make Sense of the Paradoxes of the Common Good

Leadership for the good requires the embrace of paradox.

Key points

  • In complex, pluralistic societies, there are reasonable differences of opinion about what is the right thing to do.
  • Living with paradox requires us to do something that seems simple: accept that there is no black and white. Practically, this is very difficult.
  • Leadership for the common good calls on leaders to help their communities imagine how paradoxical tensions can be understood and managed.

In complex, pluralistic societies, there are reasonable differences of opinion about what is the right, just, or fair thing to do. These differences of opinion relate to a host of phenomena, including social goals and outcomes, the processes through which goals are realised, the nature of self and identity, and the extent to which we should build upon, abandon, or destroy the past to create the future.

Individualism and Collectivism

Consider, for example, the tension between individualism, in which individuals are more important than the collective (e.g., the group, organization, community), and collectivism, in which individuals are less important than the group. Yet other social forms exist, such as those egalitarian modes of organizing in which the individual and the group are both important. (See Alan Fiske’s work for a psychological account of the elementary forms of sociality.)

As described by leadership scholar Keith Grint, these perspectives entail a host of assumptions about the nature of the self and the proper relationship between the individual and the collective, as well as the types of normative principles, values, processes, and outcomes that ought, and ought not, to pattern sense-making and action.

To illustrate, whereas for individualists, the individual, not the group, is sovereign, and individuals are held responsible for their own situation, egalitarians tend to view problems as connected to the weakness of the community, implying that greater solidarity is the path to solving problems. In general, different ways of organizing reflect markedly different conceptions of the good.

Notably, as Marco Verweij, Michael Thompson, and colleagues have shown in their work on solving complex challenges, each time one of these perspectives is excluded from collective decision-making, governance failure inevitably results. This insight has important consequences for how we think about the common good and the leadership practices that are enacted in the search for the good.

Living With Paradox

Among other things, these insights suggest that the practice of leadership for the common good requires an ability and willingness to overcome any Manichaean tendencies to parse the world into irreconcilable opposites and to instead live with the tensions and paradoxes that inevitably attend life in complex, pluralistic societies. But what exactly are paradoxes?

According to Marianne Lewis, paradox refers to “contradictory yet interrelated elements that exist simultaneously and persist over time.” Drawing on the logician Willard Quine, leadership scholars Richard Bolden, Morgan Witzel, and Nigel Linacre describe paradoxes that involve two or more logically incompatible but nevertheless true positions as “antimony paradoxes” and observe that people in Western cultures find these paradoxes especially hard to understand and accept.

Living with paradox requires us to do something that, in descriptive terms, is quite simple—namely, to accept that there is no black and white. However, practically, living with and leading in the context of paradox is quite difficult. How might this be achieved? In the first instance, one needs to apprehend the paradoxical tensions encountered in social life.

Research by Wendy Smith and Marianne Lewis offers important clues about how we might categorize these paradoxical tensions and, ultimately, manage them in such a way that fosters creativity, learning, and sustainability. (The latter is a topic for another day.) Specifically, Smith and Lewis posit that paradoxes can be categorized as those of belonging, learning, organizing, and performing.

Belonging paradoxes arise between the individual and the collective, as well as between competing values, roles, and memberships. Learning paradoxes surface as dynamic systems adjust, adapt, change, renew, and innovate, which involves building upon, as well as abandoning or destroying, the past to create the future. Organizing paradoxes surface as complex systems create competing designs and processes to achieve a desired outcome. Finally, performing paradoxes stem from the plurality of stakeholders and result in competing strategies and goals.

In addition to these belonging, learning, organizing, and performing paradoxes, a host of paradoxes emerge at the intersections of these categories. For example, the belonging paradox reflected in the tension between the individual and collective—called the “master problem” of social life by Donelson Forsyth and Crystal Hoyt—intersects with a corresponding organizing paradox in the form of competing individualist and collectivist approaches to diagnosing and solving social challenges.

Although this theorizing emerged from now voluminous literature on paradoxes in management, it is apparent that these insights are germane to organizations, communities, and society at large. Indeed, to the extent, as posited by John Bryson and Barbara Crosby, that leadership for the common good occurs across several interlocking levels (e.g., organization, community, society), leaders can expect to encounter myriad paradoxical tensions in the course of their leadership.


Bolden, R., Witzel, M., & Linacre, N. (Eds.) (2016). Leadership paradoxes: Rethinking leadership for an uncertain world. Routledge.

Bryson, J. M., & Crosby, B. C. (1992). Leadership for the common good: Tackling public problems in a shared-power world. Jossey-Bass.

Fiske, A. P. (1992). The four elementary forms of sociality: Framework for a unified theory of social relations. Psychological Review, 99(4), 689–723.

Forsyth, D. R., & Hoyt, C. L. (Eds.). (2011). For the greater good of all: Perspectives on individualism, society, and leadership. Palgrave Macmillan.

Grint, K. (2010). The cuckoo clock syndrome: addicted to command, allergic to leadership. European Management Journal, 28(4), 306–313.

Lewis, M. (2000). Exploring paradox: Towards a more comprehensive guide. Academy of Management Review, 25, 760–776.

Smith, W. K., & Lewis, M. W. (2011). Towards a theory of paradox: A dynamic equilibrium model of organizing. Academy of Management Review, 36(2), 381–403.

Verweij, M., & Thompson, M. (Eds.) (2006). Clumsy solutions for a complex world. Palgrave Macmillan.