When navigating in leadership, there are many issues that can arise. One in particular is contradictions in leadership. We caught up with Carol from The Open University to share her own experience in leadership and developing an effective strategy to manage these contradictions. Carol’s teaching interests focus on leadership, collaboration, and non-mainstream ways of leading and managing – with a particular focus on nonprofit organisations.


Name: Dr Carol Jacklin-Jarvis

Organisation: Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership, The Open University

Role: Lecturer in Management

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learnt about leadership with consideration of the Covid-19 pandemic? 

Leadership is full of contradictions, and this has been made very evident in the current pandemic… On the one hand, there is a sense that people want strong leaders who speak out to give clear guidance; on the other hand, people want leaders who listen, who seek out, empower and respond to different voices. Indeed, there’s a dilemma for everyone who practices leadership (and that’s not just those with big titles, but rather everyone ‘making things happen’ and ‘getting things done’).

In brief, that dilemma is:

When should I be directive? Vs. When should I listen, and enable others to speak and act – rather than providing direction?

Leadership theory wrestles with this dilemma but offers no easy answers, recognising that it involves both directing other people and enabling them.  Moreover, it acknowledges that individuals will continually have to assess when to be directive and when to be more enabling – sometimes doing both almost simultaneously.


Tell us about your journey in leadership

Like many women of my generation, my ‘career’ has taken a rather bumpy and wandering route. When my children were young, I juggled three part-time jobs with caring responsibilities. I returned to education and training at several points. I tell people I trained as a social worker, but in truth I’ve trained for various different jobs. I’ve worked for charities, both large and small, and for local authorities. I’ve worked as a manager with a big team and even bigger budget, but more often in roles where I had to encourage, persuade and enable others to help me get my job done – without any formal management responsibility.

Looking back on my own leadership experiences – in education, at work, in community and faith groups, I wish I had understood much earlier that dilemmas and contradictions are a part of leadership – rather than simply a sign that I had got something wrong.


What have you learnt, and how do you manage this contradiction?

With hindsight, I see myself balancing somewhat precariously between listening to, and enabling others and giving people a clear sense of direction so that they can get on board.

I realise now I should expect to keep moving between these two practices (enabling and directing) if I’m going to get things done.

I now work at the Open University where I teach and research leadership in voluntary sector organisations and direct the Business School’s  The Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership. Combining academic insights with reflection on my own lived experience, I think it’s really important to recognise that contradictions and dilemmas like the one described here are a part of leadership and cannot be talked away.

Instead, we need to recognise the contradictions when they emerge, and support people to think through how they respond to such contradictions in their circumstances, and at a particular point in time. There are no easy formulas for leadership, and the contradictions won’t go away, but what we can do is learn to navigate them without being blown over in the cross-winds.



Read more from Carol on her blog from The Open University

You can also connect with Reaching People through their social media on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to keep up to date with the latest.

 Did you know we have a leadership newsletter? Subscribe here