5 minute read 26 Jan 2023

To sustain performance in the future business environment, leaders must unlearn old ways of thinking and embrace five paradoxical mindsets.

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How leaders can embrace five paradoxical mindsets to become future-fit

By Amy Walters

Manager, EY Lane4, EY Professional Services Limited

Specialises in human performance with a focus on applied psychology. Translates academic thinking and research into practical solutions for business. Visiting lecturer at Bath University.

5 minute read 26 Jan 2023
Related topics Workforce

To sustain performance in the future business environment, leaders must unlearn old ways of thinking and embrace five paradoxical mindsets.

In brief
  • Numerous megatrends are reshaping the world of business and leaders are struggling to achieve long-lasting performance.
  • 79% of C-suite leaders agree that a different set of leadership mindsets will be needed for their business to succeed in the future.1
  • Our research findings outline how the exact shift in thinking required from leaders, is the ability to embrace five paradoxical mindsets. 

Human augmentation technologies, growing economic inequality, climate change and the maturation of Generation Z are just some of the megatrends reshaping the business environment. Shrinking life expectancy of businesses suggests leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to achieve lasting success. In the past 30 years, 75% of UK FTSE 100 companies have disappeared, meanwhile those on today’s Fortune 500 list do well if they last 15 years.3

Old ways of thinking and acting in business are being applied to a fundamentally different context.  To help leaders adapt, many studies have explored the future-fit skill set leaders need to be equipped with, but few have examined the shift in thinking also required.

To find out more about this much-needed shift in thinking required, we carried out further research interviewing leaders from a variety of industries and countries.

Our findings showed how alongside being purpose-led,4 a distinguishing characteristic of these leaders was their ability to hold seemingly paradoxical mindsets, balancing sets of conflicting beliefs, attitudes and values.


Download the full report: Five leadership mindsets (PDF, 5.3 MB)



How are mindsets shaping your organisational strategy?

A mindset refers to the beliefs, attitudes and values that filter the way that we look at the world. The mindsets we hold influence our thought processes, which ultimately influence how we act and what we do.5 Similarly, the reverse can be true, with our actions and experiences influencing our beliefs, attitudes, and values. Carol Dweck, for example, made famous the idea of holding a ‘growth mindset’, showing how students, who believed their intelligence could be developed, performed better at school compared with students who had a ‘fixed mindset’ and believed their intelligence to be set and predetermined by natural ability.6

Our mindsets are also inextricably linked to the times and society we live in. For example, during the industrial revolution, leaders were more likely to perceive their business through a ‘machine lens’, focusing on improving efficiency and treating employees as cogs to control within the bigger company machine.

A key watch out for leaders is whether their mindsets are outdated for the times they are in. For example, retailers have had to move away from a transaction mindset focussed on ‘how do we sell more stuff?’, to a value-creation-oriented mindset focussed on ‘how do we create value beyond the transaction?’7

To be future-fit, it’s imperative for leaders to keep checking in with their mindsets, making sure their beliefs, attitudes, and values move with the times they are operating in.

How can a paradoxical mindset enable better performance?

A paradox refers to ‘contradictory, yet integrated elements that exist simultaneously and persist over time’, and it has long been recognised that paradoxes can present challenges and yet serve as a source of peak performance and creativity.8,9

In terms of adopting a set of paradoxical mindsets, this is about leaders moving away from simple, ‘either-or’ thinking and towards a more complex ‘both-and’ approach. It’s about leaders becoming comfortable operating within the sweet spots of seemingly contradictory beliefs, attitudes and values to achieve high performance. This suite of paradoxical mindsets is not about amplifying one aspect of a certain mindset depending on the moment, it’s about consistently ‘being both’ across numerous situations.

The five paradoxical mindsets leaders need to be future-fit:

Our findings suggest five paradoxical mindsets are essential for leaders to adopt if they are to be successful in the emerging business context, namely:

  1. Responsibly daring

    “I believe everything is worth trying and anything is possible, and I’m accountable for what we achieve and how we push the limits.”

    Responsibly daring leaders are audacious. Such leaders see opportunity in challenge and feel responsible for making a difference. They see the positives, focus on the future, drive innovation, and take responsibility for their brave actions.

  2. Ruthlessly caring

    “I make tough decisions to achieve performance and I must remain compassionate no matter what“

    Ruthlessly caring leaders are determined professionals who value human connection. They treat people with respect, are highly supportive and challenging, and handle the emotional impact of tough decisions.

  3. Ambitiously appreciative

    “To achieve ambitious goals, I need to be relentless and determined and I need to find a way to be sustainable and keep perspective.”

    Ambitiously appreciative leaders are highly driven, never satisfied and yet manage to keep challenges in perspective. They set demanding objectives, celebrate performance as well as attainment and appreciate the things that matter to people in life.

  4. Politically virtuous

    “To enhance performance, I’ve got to be shrewd in the circumstances and I always have to do the right thing.”

    Politically virtuous leaders are savvy, genuine and have integrity. They influence others, live their values, are open about what they can and cannot talk about, and effectively navigate tough decisions where there is no ‘right’ answer.

  5. Confidently humble

    “I inspire others to have confidence in me and my ability and I’m honest about my limitations, aware that I can’t achieve ambitious goals alone.”

    Confidently humble leaders are self-assured, decisive, and driven to learn about and from others. They are honest about their limitations and build their credibility.
Ensure your leadership is future-fit

Future-thinking leaders are driving performance by holding five contradictory mindsets. To perform effectively within the new business context, leaders must let go of outdated ways of thinking and embrace this new set of seemingly contradictory beliefs, attitudes, and values. These are the modern mindsets leaders need to equip themselves with. This is the 'both/and' way of thinking leaders must master to become future-fit.

This article has been created using insight extracts from a book “Ruthlessly Caring: And other paradoxical mindsets leaders need to be future-fit” which was published by John Wiley & Sons, January 2023. The book offers more insight into the mindsets leaders need to thrive in a new era of business.


Business has entered a new era and leaders need to move with the times. Outdated practices and age-old thinking must be let go. An ever-complex environment is calling for a more complex leadership approach. To flourish in the future, leaders need to embrace a more complex set of beliefs, attitudes, and values. Embracing the five paradoxical mindsets will be integral to future performance and success.

  • Show article references

    1. Survey carried out by Lane4 Management Group in December 2018 with over 150 C-suite leaders, from businesses with a turnover from £10 million to over £500 million.

    2. “Are you reframing your future or is the future reframing you?”, EY, 19th June 2020. 

    3. T. Tzuo & G. Weisert, Subscribed: Why the Subscription Model Will be Your Company’s Future-and what to Do about it (Penguin, 2018).

    4. “The Future of Leadership: Developing a new perspective”, Lane4 white paper, 2019.

    5. R. Dilts, From coach to awakener (Meta Publications, 2003).

    6. C. S. Dweck, Mindset: The new psychology of success (Random House Digital Inc., 2008).

    7. G. Morse, “Retail Isn’t Broken. Stores Are.”, Harvard Business Review, 1 December 2011. 

    8. W.K. Smith, & M.W. Lewis, “Toward a theory of paradox: A dynamic equilibrium model of organizing”, Academy of Management Review, 2011.

    9. C. Rodgers, Informal coalitions: Mastering the hidden dynamics of organizational change (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

About this article

By Amy Walters

Manager, EY Lane4, EY Professional Services Limited

Specialises in human performance with a focus on applied psychology. Translates academic thinking and research into practical solutions for business. Visiting lecturer at Bath University.

Related topics Workforce