A Paradoxical Mindset Framework for Coaching Leaders

By Sunitha Narayanan

Amidst the global health crisis, leaders are being required to respond to ever-changing conditions, often with a sense of urgency, while facing their own exhaustion and lack of joy, and while needing to support overextended teams. This context is not conducive to an organizational culture or leadership style that encourages creativity and celebrates cognitive diversity to solve complex problems. Leaders may succumb to an either/or mindset and miss the nuances of business situations, perhaps even doubting their own abilities.

Career practitioners focused on leadership and executive coaching can help clients consider paradoxical perspectives inherently present in a choice and, in doing so, encourage the practice of balanced versatility, thereby increasing the intended impact. The three elements of this paradoxical coaching framework are: helping clients restore confident “heart listening”; increasing awareness of how overusing strengths can derail success; and encouraging love as a foundational business practice.

Build Back Confident Heart Listening

Soman, a team leader overseeing return-to-the-office plans, expressed his unease by saying that he was out of practice being around people daily. This unease brought out contradictory feelings, as he explained to his coach, “I really like people yet don’t want to be around my colleagues daily.” This was surprising for Soman who is recognized for his social skills. Underlying anxiety was derailing Soman’s goal for returning to the office.

Leaves G1dd5dfbbe 1280With his coach’s help, Soman began connecting back to his heart, using an exercise to expand his emotional vocabulary, observe paradoxical emotions, and notice triggers that were resulting in unproductive behaviors. Soman and his coach identified the following pairs of emotions he was experiencing:

  • Annoyed and Delighted
  • Overwhelmed and Calm
  • Inept and Planful

Sonam tracked these pairs of opposites daily, and soon a pattern emerged that helped him align self-awareness to his leadership behaviors, enabling him and his team to shift towards growth and momentum. As Soman gave restlessness and ease equal attention in his heart first, he also encouraged his team to engage with contradictory emotions and recalibrate trust in each other.

Building on the identification of paradoxical emotions, coaches can craft with clients a set of prompts to help them engage with those emotions with kindness and confidence:

  • I am feeling …. (emotions)
  • In the grip of this… (feeling)
  • I say…
  • I act…
  • I receive…
  • The story I run with…
  • Next time, I can choose to…

Recognize the Blind Spot in a Signature Strength

Most leaders prefer to lead and create results from their signature strengths (Kaplan & Kaiser, 2009). In coaching engagements, feedback from 360-degree surveys around areas for development gets discussed and then, sometimes, dismissed. One way to fully use feedback given to leaders is to frame the coaching conversation around the blind spot hidden in a signature strength.

Lorna prides herself on her logic and uses forthright diplomacy to drive business results with discipline. In her 360, being logical and a straightforward communicator are strengths that respondents appreciated in her leadership style. Imagine her shock when her policy decisions about returning to the office resulted in swift push back from her team. She felt anger when told by her senior leaders, “you are being seen as egocentric and uncaring,” the opposite of the psychologically safe culture she is known to create for her team.

For Lorna to recognize how logic, a strength that usually builds success for her, had fallen short was not intuitively easy. In fact, she dismissed the objections she was hearing using logic. With her coach’s help, Lorna completed this strengths-blind spot exercise with three of her trusted senior leaders:

  1. Write down three strengths that are helping with the move-in office proposal.
  2. Have each of the three senior leaders give a suggestion for how overuse of the strengths is causing difficulty for the team.
  3. Bring this feedback into the coaching session to brainstorm ideas for follow-through.

Career practitioners will do well to remember the Law of Requisite Variety (Shah, n.d.) a pre-supposition of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) and a key belief that can enable us to achieve more and add more joy in our life. Essentially, the more flexible we are, the more likely we can influence outcomes. The sophistication of integrating two seemingly opposite behaviors can expand a leader’s repertoire to build influence. While Lorna’s intention was generous, her overuse of logic had fallen short and derailed the success of her well-conceived plan. The strengths-blind spot exercise helped her see this. Lorna is learning to see logic and empathy as complementary and interdependent traits by:

  • admitting that her preference for logic is getting in the team’s way and giving permission to her team to call her out when it is unproductive
  • asking two open-ended curiosity questions before stating an opinion
  • over-communicating that she is committed to listening to all concerns and can’t promise all ideas will be used right away

Use Love as a Foundational Business Practice

Practicing love helps us recognize that we can disagree without rejecting a neighbor’s humanity. In a team workshop on rebuilding trust, participants were struggling with setting aside grudges. The coach introduced three exercises to help shift energy with this group:

First exercise: A playful, pair-and-share activity to list as many “If only” statements in the allotted three minutes and then come up with as many “What ifs” in the next three minutes. Using play helps answer, “What part of my thinking might I challenge for three minutes?”

Second Exercise: “When I choose to offer love, I behave with…” or "When I choose to offer hate, I behave..." Listening to and sharing responses to the “When I choose to offer hate” prompt allowed each participant to give voice to real and imagined hurts and recognize the common ground across team responses. That knowledge opened the team to consider behaviors that align with love, the opposite of hate.

Third Exercise: In groups of two, people doodled the problem and the solution. Each doodle was distinctive. There was an ease in the conversation because play entered the conversation. The team began problem solving with renewed trust.

Love, when used with integrity, can help set boundaries and give permission. For this team, love gave permission to hold on to grudges and yet set them aside for a bit.

Why Embrace a Paradoxical Leadership Style?

Today’s leadership imperative is to help break the cycle of exhaustion and lack of belief in each other’s capacity to build a future together. As a coach, I invite you to accept this challenge today. I look forward to learning from your perspective on why embracing the paradox in life and leadership might be our way forward.



Kaplan, R., & Kaiser, R. (2009, February). Stop overdoing your strengths. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2009/02/stop-overdoing-your-strengths 

Shah, N. (n.d.). Truth behind the law of requisite variety: Are you really doing all that you can? ICHARS: Creating Change Unconsciously. https://inlpcenter.org/what-is-neuro-linguistic-programming-nlp/



Sunitha Narayanan 2021Sunitha Narayanan is a Certified Executive and Leadership Coach. She helps clients build an authentic life by helping them notice how they get in their own way, how they get in other people’s way, and how they can honor and ask for what they need to do the work that matters deeply to them. Sunitha can be reached at narayanansunitha4@gmail.com  or www.linkedin.com/in/sunitha4

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Elisabeth Swan   on Tuesday 02/01/2022 at 04:55 PM

I so appreciate the use of paradox, especially regarding disparate feelings about the same issue. Righting those down making them explicit sets the stage for personal innovation. Such a great process you've outlined Sunitha. I especially like the idea of being mindful when you overuse a strength. We don't often call that out. Great piece, thank you!

Krishna Prakash   on Tuesday 02/01/2022 at 06:37 PM

Grateful that am able to read this fount of knowledge that is well articulated due to the wisdom gained from your personal practice. Am already able to see 3 applications of this in my life itself before even thinking about others - with parents, with a new large diverse team that am asked to groom & with Shrimath alumni.

Thanks Sunitha 🙏🏼

Jackene Laverty   on Tuesday 02/01/2022 at 11:14 PM

Thank you, Sunitha, for sharing your experience and expertise. What I find most helpful is the reminder not to overuse strengths. Somehow we get the message early on that we must be applying strengths full throttle all the time. This promotes exhaustion and unwillingness to shift strategies based on what is happening in the surrounding environment.

Jodie Mader   on Wednesday 02/02/2022 at 09:07 AM

I appreciate your thoughts on expressing feelings, recognizing them, and also breaking the cycle of pain, such as exhaustion. These are the kind of conversations that are so needed right now, where we can assess where we are but also look for hope, conversation, and rebuilding a community of love and support.

Sunitha Narayanan   on Wednesday 02/02/2022 at 09:44 AM

Elisabeth - very true - our focus is on adding value using our strengths and in that other-focus, we have the opportunity to forget the need of the person we are helping. I asked and was once told (generously) by a client that I have so many ideas that sometimes he experiences me as a firehose! Ouch and ouch!

Sunitha Narayanan   on Wednesday 02/02/2022 at 09:46 AM

Jackene and Krishna - thank you for reading and finding value in personal life situations. My belief is that we carry our contradictions and blind spots equally in our homes and work. A pause in both places works well.

Sunitha Narayanan   on Wednesday 02/02/2022 at 09:49 AM

Jodie-- what a powerful observation-"breaking the cycle of exhaustion and pain we are all caught in today." The image that comes to my mind is that we are all pods of restless energy colliding with each other and coming away even more irritable with each other.

I hope that as we continue to build our pause practice, the energy will shift towards consideration which then will shift toward willingness to...

Thank you for your commitment in changing conversations! I hope to see you next week.

Elisabeth Swan   on Wednesday 02/02/2022 at 10:04 AM


Victoria Rayel   on Thursday 02/03/2022 at 03:53 PM

I've seen many leaders overuse their strengths to the benefit of the work but to the detriment of the team. It's so helpful to think through the lens of of a paradox and how this flexibility can inform influence. This is truly an insightful and actionable article!

Sunitha Narayanan   on Thursday 02/03/2022 at 04:24 PM

Vicky: Thanks for reading and sharing your insights. I particularly like the spotlight on, "leaders overusing their strengths to the benefit of the results, not necessarily to the benefit of the team."

This is critical and worthy of a dedicated discussion because followership that is the dancing partner of leadership is significantly impacted. Thank you for taking the time to add thoughtfully to this conversation.

I am looking forward to our upcoming conversation on using Emotional Intelligence practices to explore career pathing and progression.

Laura Morales   on Friday 02/04/2022 at 11:17 AM

I really like and appreciate the paradoxical mindset because it is a true reflection, both figuratively and literally providing the opposite and complimentary. Thank you Sunitha for presenting it so eloquently!

Sunitha Narayanan   on Friday 02/04/2022 at 12:30 PM

Laura - thank you for bringing out the piece of joy/complimentary part that usually is harder to notice and engage with. And neuroscience research supports that our wonderful brain is unable to simultaneously process emotions that are contradictory. So a lean towards, just enough toward that complimentary might help us shush the amygdala that supports our feel/fright/fight responses.

I appreciate your work in changing conversations daily and enjoy your posts - love the video format because I can now hear your voice! Thank you

Erich Switzer   on Friday 02/04/2022 at 02:14 PM

The timing of this is remarkable Sunitha. I'm working with my team on opening a new facility...trying to leverage my strengths and wondering why we aren't moving along well. It's clear my blindspots are getting in the way. Thanks sharing the paradoxical mindset framework.

Sunitha Narayanan   on Friday 02/04/2022 at 02:29 PM


How not to marvel at serendipity! I am happy this reflection reached you when you are figuring out how to get out of your own way! Bravo! And keep me posted on what else comes up for you and your team. I am here to listen, encourage and brainstorm with you.

Jill McCarthy    on Saturday 02/05/2022 at 04:47 AM

Thank you Sunitha for bringing to light the challenges some of our fearless leaders are facing. Sometimes it’s overlooked that our leaders are people too- dealing with the same craziness of these times. We look to them to be strong and hold up the team, but they also need love, a safe space, and feedback. Your exercises are very insightful and helpful to openly discuss the needs and challenges of leaders and how to productively help them. As a leader talking about not wanting to be around people, our blind spots, or even love can be extremely uncomfortable, but in order to grow (and keep our sanity) it’s necessary to keep these dialogues open and provide support as we all navigate the paradox of these times.

Sunitha Narayanan   on Saturday 02/05/2022 at 09:44 AM


" in order to grow (and keep our sanity) it’s necessary to keep these dialogues open and provide support as we all navigate the paradox of these times." You have captured my reason for writing this article. Thank you. And for the space you provide for each of us daily to figure things out.

Ute Franzen-Waschke   on Sunday 02/06/2022 at 11:35 AM

What an insightful article, Sunitha. In so many ways.

I particularly enjoyed the example around "Return to Office Policies". Conversations around that topic are full of paradoxes: Should there be one policy for all? Should there be fixed days/times? Should we allow flexibility or not? What are the pros and cons of each...? What works best for the individual and at the same also works for the team, products and customers. So many aspects, so many considerations. It is really important to explore these paradoxes, and the emotions that come with them - without judgement on self and others.

You gave hands-on examples and exercises to try out. Thank you so much.

Sunitha Narayanan   on Sunday 02/06/2022 at 01:43 PM

Ute: It is high honor to have you in this conversation. Thank you for reading, encouraging, and posting additional questions that I suspect are on everyone's mind today. The answers might not be clear yet. However, the opportunity to lean into questions is here. Thank you for the work you do to help people pause as they enter conversations.

William Harvey   on Sunday 02/06/2022 at 06:40 PM

The stories we tell ourselves are extremely powerful in shaping our paradigm. By recognizing the paradoxical nature of overusing a strength, it is clear that individual change is necessary. Sitting with that discomfort is very real--real and required to grow beyond one's current comfort zone.

And love, what an important concept generally off limits to men in business. As a caring person, this paradox made me uncomfortable. Should I reject my feelings of love and compassion because of society or risk revolution in the American workplace by being the change I want to see in the world? I chose the latter and still seek to normalize it.

Sunitha Narayanan   on Monday 02/07/2022 at 07:26 PM

Thank you for reading, reflecting and sharing thoughtfully. You bring out the overall discomfort in our conversations when we talk about how to use love as a practice to influence and impact as leaders. Especially the myths around gender preferences. Thank you for shining light on this piece - I can say that I hear this fear in many coaching conversations across gender.

Thank you for modeling love as in normalizing conversations around this topic and building safety in all conversations.

I believe that the only way to get into trouble must be when we choose NOT to speak up. We are getting there with our collective practices! Kudos for staying faithful to your pause practices.

Barbara Turner   on Wednesday 02/09/2022 at 08:05 PM

Thank you for sharing Sunitha! I appreciate your wisdom and insight! Regards, Barbara

Sunitha Narayanan   on Thursday 02/10/2022 at 07:55 AM

Barbara: Thank you for reading and supporting my work. Our community is grateful for your leadership - you model grace, humility and sharp business acumen. A force for good! Thank you.

Carly Trimboli   on Monday 02/21/2022 at 09:58 AM

I really enjoyed reading this, Sunitha! It comes at a good time for me too, as I have been internally exploring my own paradoxical emotions about how two things can be true at once - and now I have better language to describe it. As I'm stepping back into a coaching role, I am taking two things away from this that are powerful for me. The first is the "if only" and "what if" exercise which I think is a great mindset shift for my audience, and the other piece is just the authenticity and honesty this work brings about. I think it's really important to brings our authentic selves to work and elsewhere, and I look forward to keeping this at the top of my mind in my work.

Sunitha Narayanan   on Monday 02/21/2022 at 11:44 AM

Carly" I am glad you found value in the exercises. It is always a grand day when we pay attention to our practices to create pause. May you have many pauses in your day! Congratulations on your new role. I am here to listen and cheer you on.

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