Actualized Leadership: Are You a Walking Contradiction?

Actualized Leadership: Are You a Walking Contradiction?

People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls.
Carl Jung

Better to be whole than perfect.
Carl Jung

Let me ask you a question: If someone referred to you as a “walking contradiction,” how would that make you feel?  Before I studied Jung and Maslow, it would have hurt my feelings and made me feel bad.  I would have associated that phrase with being inconsistent or disingenuous, the opposite of the desired qualities such as reliable and authentic that had been engrained in me from an early age.  I suspect that many of you reading this would feel the same way, too.

And guess what, we would both be wrong.

I am hopeful that by the end of this reflection you may come to feel differently, and to see the phrase “walking contradiction” as a wonderful compliment that highlights that you are, in fact, actualizing to your fullest potential.  The purpose of this Blog is to examine some of the more common paradoxes or contradictions we face, and to explore strategies for both owning and integrating these seemingly opposite facets into your nature.

Contradictions in Leadership

In the latest issue of the prestigious Academy of Management’s “Perspectives” journal, there is an article that discusses how today’s leaders must effectively manage the paradoxes inherent in modern organizations.  The authors cite the following three paradoxes leaders must face:

Confident Sense of Self        coupled with     Humility

Maintaining Control             coupled with     Letting Go

Sustaining Continuity          coupled with     Pursuing Change

As I read the article I thought about Maslow’s urging that in order to self-actualize, we had to make peace with our contradictory nature.  He actually went much further than that; he blamed Western culture’s need to dichotomize our reality by “… thinking in terms of either/or … as if one cannot and should not be both” as the underlying cause for our limited view.  Maslow stated that for those who don’t understand or appreciate the self-actualizing process, they would perceive others on this path as inconsistent: “To the uninitiated they appear to be a walking contradiction.”

Maslow identified several aspects of our being that at first blush appear to be paradoxical and contradictory.  Some of these aspects follow: Altruistic/Selfish; Work/Play; Serious/Light-hearted; Love/Lust; Objective/Passionate; Energetic/Quiet, and Smart/Naïve.  He began writing about the need to “reconcile these dichotomies” as he studied healthy “actualizers.”  I believe he chose the term “reconcile” carefully when you consider its definition:

“Reconciliation” – making one view or belief compatible with another view or belief; the restoration of friendly relationships.

He later abandoned the notion of reconciliation in the strictest sense because he came to realize that these are not actual dichotomies, but rather the expression of what it means to be fully human, and fully actualized.  Perceiving these aspects of our nature as independent and opposite, as opposed to interdependent and interrelated, were limitations in our cultural bias.  Maslow stated that “… the dichotomy between selfishness and unselfishness disappears altogether in healthy people because in principle every act is both selfish and unselfish.”

Resolving Our Dichotomous Nature

Both Jung and Maslow stated that in order for us to live an optimal life at our highest potential we have to be willing to confront our darker side.  Instead of seeing seemingly paradoxical aspects of our nature as opposites, we should make peace with them as interrelated components of what it means to live a full life.  When we integrate our Shadow, we are then free to operate from a place of deep awareness and radical self-acceptance.  And in turn, we are liberated to work hard, and relax “hard,” without guilt.  We can be both bold and reflective, candid and caring, outgoing and still.

It may come as no surprise to you that I consider Dr. Jerry Harvey to have been highly self-actualized.  He confided in me that after he “poured his soul” into writing a chapter or article, he often found that he collapsed on his sofa for hours or even days at a time so exhausted that he couldn’t even “tie his shoe.”  He also said that while he was considered a dynamic and gifted public speaker (“story teller” as he liked to call it), he was so nervous before he gave each “talk” that he felt physically sick.  In these examples, he felt exhilarated while writing, but then guilty for relaxing.  He felt energized after public speaking, but weak before his talk.  After reflecting on these inherent paradoxes in his own nature, he said something that I’ve only recently begun to really appreciate:
When I made peace with myself and accepted my quirky nature, I was finally free to enjoy life.

What’s in your dichotomous nature that you continue to battle?

What aspects of yourself do you need to reconcile?

What will you be free to enjoy when you do?


  1. Bob Freese

    Love the clarity around the dichotomies! The Jerry Harvey story really hits home too.

  2. Byron J Leach

    Thank you for this article. While reading, my own struggles making amends with my life juxtapositions or, stated here, contradictions came roaring through my mind. Ambition leaves me feeling dirty for wanting more for my own life, even if the work helps others. The contradiction of doing the work for personal gratification and communal empowerment–when moving up the ranks in a social justice organization– often creates internal conflict. This article gives me more peace that the two can be interrelated and not in opposition. Thank you again for the concise manner in which this is presented. I will be sharing this one with some other ambitious people I know.

    • Dr Will Sparks

      Thank you Bryon for such a thoughtful comment, and for the feedback. Yes, they can be integrated because they are interrelated. Our own bias sees a paradox or dichotomy, and Maslow and Jung remind us that there is no paradox, only attributes, thoughts, emotions and behaviors on a spectrum. Making peace with your “quirky” struggles and accepting them for what they are – normal and healthy – may just help you to find what Dr. Harvey found … happiness and peace without the guilt.


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