The Inner Compass: A Tool for Leaders to Navigate a World Full of Paradoxes & Polarities
By Thor Olafsson
Recent leadership trends have highlighted the countless opposing challenges that we are currently facing in our management roles. And we often feel we need to seek certainty when our worlds are in flux. In this article we explore a model that can help us navigate a world full of paradoxes and polarities without feeling we need to go for a black or white outcome.
Read time: 5 ½ mins
Thor Olafsson is author of the book BEYOND EGO: THE INNER COMPASS OF CONSCIOUS LEADERSHIP. He’s an award-winning leadership coach and consultant with over 20 years of global experience.
In the old paradigm of leadership, conflicting problems or issues were often addressed as though there was a right or wrong answer to them. This binary “yes/no” method of problem solving approached each challenge as though it had a simple solution that could be answered and solved with the “right” decision. Yet current trends in leadership recognize that we manage in a world of paradoxes and polarities. There are countless contradictions and seemingly unsolvable dilemmas that we face in our leadership roles. Many of us face these opposing challenges on a daily basis. So the question that many leaders ask is, “How do we navigate these challenges so that we can work with polarities that are often seemingly unsolvable?”
The Evolution of Polarity Maps
In his Research White Paper on “Navigating Paradox with Polarity Maps” Brian Emerson, PhD, highlighted that “In the past several decades, there has been an increasing focus on paradox in both leadership and organizations.” Emerson’s White Paper highlighted that although paradoxes have been acknowledged for the past few decades in business, there were a limited number of practical approaches available for organizations to work through inherent paradoxes. His paper focused on using Polarity Maps – an approach created by Barry Johnson that enables leaders to work with their organizations and map out the opposing elements of a paradox. The White Paper highlighted that some of the outcomes of using Polarity Maps were that they enabled users to move towards appreciating polarities, reframe the problem, synergize and take inclusive action that was “Both/And-ing” (defined as “combining the synergy of the two poles”). In other words, it led to more cooperative interactions between management and teams.
Introducing the Inner Compass
Over this past decade I’ve been developing a model that supports leaders to experience more consciousness, and to lead from that place. Although I didn’t set out for this model to be useful in working with Polarities and Paradoxes, during consulting sessions with leaders over the past 10 years it’s become more apparent to myself and my team that the Inner Compass work that I’ve been developing can act as a framework for dealing with Polarities and Paradoxes. (Ideally alongside the polarity maps mentioned above.)
Below is a diagram of the Inner Compass:
As a brief overview, it’s a tool that you can use in a variety of ways to support your leadership journey. It’s designed so that you start at truth, taking the journey around the compass as a leader as follows:
TRUTH → PURPOSE → INTENTION → HUMILITY → TRUST → FORGIVENESS → COMPASSION → GRATITUDE
So the journey around the compass would look something like this:
Myself and many of the leaders that I work with don’t see this as a one time journey around. Each time you go around the Compass you go deeper into each element and it invites a further expansion of consciousness.
Working with Polarities and Paradoxes Using the Inner Compass
As well as taking continued journeys around the Inner Compass as an evolutionary tool for managers, it can also be used to address specific management challenges. When it comes to dealing with Polarities and Paradoxes, there are 4 elements of the Inner Compass that have supported the managers that my team work with to approach them with their teams.
1 – Truth
It can be liberating for a manager to sit down with their team and name the Paradoxes and Polarities that they are facing, and the different elements that they contain. For example: Do we want to decentralize and thereby stay in close contact with our markets or do we want to centralize more in order to manage decision making and cost more tightly? If both are needed, how comfortable are we with that? The element of truth enables us to acknowledge that we do have paradoxes and polarities in our world, and they are part of our reality, particularly in business scenarios (you may remember that an important element of Polarity Maps highlighted in the earlier White Paper was that they enabled users to move towards appreciating polarities).
2 – Purpose
When we have acknowledged that Polarities and Paradoxes exist, we can ask our teams, “What is a purposeful way of handling them?” Tuning our teams to purposefulness enables them to move more into reframing the problem (reframing was also listed as an advantage in the earlier White Paper) whereby they interact more comfortably with the existing polarities.
3 – Intention
We use the Inner Compass to set the intention of being present to our current reality in any given moment: In this case, the purposeful handling of paradoxes and polarities. This creates a climate where our teams can move into synergizing and taking inclusive action that is “Both/And-ing,” which were also highlighted in the White Paper as essential elements in working with Polarities and Paradoxes.
4 – Humility
Perhaps the most essential aspect of working with the Inner Compass on Polarities and Paradoxes is how it brings us to humility. Much of my work with leaders (as outlined in my forthcoming book Beyond Ego: The Inner Compass of Conscious Leadership) is designed to support us to lead from beyond the ego. When we apply humility, we can ask ourselves,” What am I learning about myself as I work in a world of Paradoxes and Polarities?” It enables us to see them as a growth journey, rather than allowing our ego to feel like we should have all the answers.
This is essential, because if I learn, for example, that I am constantly drawn to favoring one pole rather than the other, and creating an “other” in my mind around the people favoring that pole, then I contribute to the imagined conflict of “us and them” in my team. This leads to defensiveness, silo mentality, and even siege mentality. But if I can operate from humility—mentally and emotionally embracing both poles—we create a new path forward: one that again produces “Both/And-ing” (which was defined by the White Paper as “combining the synergy of the two poles”).
In summary: Many of the qualities of working with Polarities and Paradoxes, can be applied to using the Inner Compass as a tool to work with them. The benefits of using this tool is that it is easily accessible to all our team members and is built on familiar language that our teams use in everyday life. With the Compass as a framework we can begin to navigate even the most challenging of Polarities and Paradoxes with truth, purpose, intention and humility.
For a more in depth exploration of developing these qualities of leadership, you can explore the book “Beyond Ego: The Inner Compass of Conscious Leadership”.