Women in Paradoxical leadership

What does it take to be a successful leader?

Today’s guest blogger is Dr. Ronit Kark from Bar-Ilan University, Israel and University of Exeter, UK

According to a study by Wei Zhang, Ronit Kark, and Allison Meister, that was published in the Leadership Quarterly, Sex Roles and the HBR (see below) women leaders today face the catch-22/confliction of having to be simultaneously warm and caring, as well as direct, tough and competent. These opposing leadership qualities – relatively what society comes to expect of women, and of men and leaders – places women leaders today in a double bind. The only way to improve upon this double bind is through a change in societal expectations of what it means to be a woman, and what is necessary to be a leader. Until this change occurs, female leaders must still recognize and balance the paradoxes that are a part of their day-to-day work experiences and careers. Women that have succeeded in top leadership positions hold a paradoxical mindset, in which they are able to manage these opposing expectations. In our study, which included interviews with 64 senior women leaders (VP level or higher) in 51 different organizations across the USA we found the women report on four major paradoxes, and five strategies to navigate them.

The first paradox is the need to be both demanding and caring.  Female executives must signify care for others while simultaneously demand high performance from them as well.

The second paradox is to be authoritative yet participative. It is necessary to assert one’s competence, while also admitting one’s vulnerability and asking others to collaborate. Women leaders put forth authoritativeness to maintain credibility, but also recognize their own weaknesses and work with others so as to prevent being perceived as arrogant.

Advocating for themselves yet serving others is the third paradox; meeting not only the needs and goals of oneself, but those of others as well.

Paradox four is to maintain distance while being approachable. Women leaders maintain an impersonal leadership presence to generate respect, done by keeping distance. To counter this, women overtly and emphatically try to display the more intimate, human side of themselves – the accessible and warm qualities.

To balance these paradoxes effectively women need to hold on to a ‘paradoxical mindset’ of being able to simultaneously hold on to contradictory, yet interrelated elements that exist simultaneously and persist over time. In practice, they first need to become aware of them and the different possibilities for tension stemming from the main nice/tough double bind. After this the women in top positions report they uniquely manage and overcome the tensions and enhance effective and resilient strategies against them.


Adapt to the situation – Demonstrate kindness and toughness in varying situations, toward different audiences.

Go in order – First, build relationships, create trust, and engage others. After this, work to introduce more demanding or assertive behavior or language, to achieve goals or to challenge the normative behavior or environment.


Look for win-wins – Strive to look for opportunities where niceness and toughness come together. Make a decision while striving for consensus.


Be tough on tasks and soft on people – Strive to be nice to people and tough on tasks simultaneously.


Reframe – Reconsider what defines being nice and tough; connect the two and emphasize positive connections between the two. Recast behaviors that might be considered weaknesses into strengths, in order to portray assertive behaviors that others might find intimidating as originating from genuine care.

In the future, organizations, as well as society, must create systematic change to relieve conflicting expectations of not only women, but the additional hurdles which face their leadership. As long as female executives face this double bind, ways to manage it must be maintained.



Zheng, W., Kark, R., & Meister, A. L. (2018). Paradox versus dilemma mindset: A theory of how women leaders navigate the tensions between agency and communion. The Leadership Quarterly, 29(5), 584-596.

Zheng, W., Surgevil, O., & Kark, R. (2018). Dancing on the Razor’s Edge: How Top-Level Women Leaders Manage the Paradoxical Tensions between Agency and Communion. Sex Roles, 79(11-12), 633-650.

Zheng, W., Kark, R. & Meister, A. (2018). How Women Manage the Gendered Norms of Leadership. Harvard Business Review. November 2018.

Originally published at Psychology Today