Hacking the Growth Paradox: 3 ways leaders can get unstuck

Leaders often face a common yet perplexing challenge: they’re acutely aware of the need for change, yet they find themselves paralyzed when it comes to taking action.  It’s a phenomenon called the Growth Paradox. The paradox lies in the fact that while people often truly want to grow and change, the process is accompanied by strong feelings of discomfort, fear, and resistance that hold them back. These leaders don’t lack the will to do their work, but instead, they lack the deeper, powerful motivation anchors to break free from the constraints of their own psychology. This paradox manifests as  a feeling of “I am stuck,” locking them in a cycle of frustration and sometimes even hopelessness. 

Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey write in their book Immunity to Change, that even when leaders are deeply committed to behaving differently, they struggle with how to do it, leading to the frustrating feeling of “I am stuck” and unable to adapt.  We have seen that leaders who are able to make progress do one thing differently; they access deeper, personally relevant motivation—linking the desired change to actions driven by their values, purpose, and an inspiring version of their future self.

The psychology of the Growth Paradox

When we feel stuck, we grapple with seemingly hard barriers. These barriers, many times, are not rooted in external challenges; rather, they are stories we tell ourselves. Like invisible chains, they hold us back from realizing our full potential.  From getting unstuck. These psychological blockers keep us caught in the grip of the Growth Paradox.:

  • “I’m afraid I’ll fail.”— Often, we are afraid of trying new ways of leading because we are afraid of appearing incompetent, disappointing others, or simply outright failing on the job.​​ 
  • “This is just the way I am.”—Sometimes, we can latch onto a rigid sense of ourselves to justify doing things the way we’ve always done them, which feels more comfortable. 
  • “Why should I have to change?”—We have yet to meet an executive who doesn’t want to be successful, but being bought-in to the need to change matters deeply for their motivation. 
  • “I’m just not good enough.”Imposter Syndrome, a well-known inhibiting mindset, breeds self-doubt and manifests feelings of being a fraud, someone who will be caught out because they aren’t as talented as other people around them, even though the opposite is often true. 
  • “It’s too hard to change.”—Building new skills and mental patterns can be difficult at first. It can be hard to be a beginner again and new ways of being requires practice, persistence and motivation to keep iterating until a change becomes embedded. 
  • “It’s out of my control.”—In situations where leaders believe circumstances beyond their control trap them, it’s common to feel powerless.  

Getting unstuck

For leaders to overcome this paradox, forging a strong bond between their current and future selves is key.  This connection unlocks the intrinsic motivation that provides sustainable fuel to push through practical and emotional obstacles. Connecting your leadership growth to your personal purpose and choices will also shift your mindset and provide the compelling motivation to move past the limiting perspectives and do the hard work  Research shows that it is hard for people to take developmental action if the actions are not connected to clear pictures of their future selves. 

Below, we explore three actionable strategies infused with real world insights to help you move from paralysis to progress. 

Connect to your values: Who are you, and why does changing matter to you? 

Case study 1: Cathy, the overwhelmed CMO.

Cathy, a CMO at a tech startup, was having difficulty saying no and putting boundaries around her workload. Peers and the CEO constantly sought her out as someone who always had a smart perspective, did excellent work, and was willing to help solve thorny issues. She had the happy problem of being one of the “go-to” leaders in the company. 

 Beneath the surface, however, Cathy was overwhelmed, unable to refuse work requests, and close to burnout. Despite her clear desire to change things, she felt trapped and unable to find a way out of her habitual behavior.  

One of her main core values was “Courage.”  This value had been reflected in her willingness to take on difficult projects, tackle new hairy challenges, and always step up.  She had gained a lot of respect because of it. However, she realized that living the value of Courage now meant facing the one thing she was most unwilling to do—saying no. Once she made that connection, practicing saying “no” became something she “just had to do” because she cared deeply about being courageous. It was part of who she was.\

Acting on your values is not only fulfilling.  It also  helps clarify who you are and what you want for the future, It gives you back control, and that can be incredibly empowering.

Here are some questions to help you clarify your values. Answer these questions and notice the themes that come up:

  • Reflect on a time when you felt deeply satisfied, fulfilled, or alive. What were you doing? What values were implicit in that situation?
  • What are the beliefs or principles you would never compromise on, regardless of the circumstances?
  • Rank your top three to five values. 
  • How does a change you want to make in your leadership style connect to your values?
  • Is there a value that needs to be expressed differently now?  

Craft your future leadership Identity: Who are you striving to become? 

Case study 2: Adam, the micromanager CEO.

Adam is a young founder and CEO of a rapidly expanding startup. As his company flourished, he onboarded more experienced senior members but continued to treat them as he did his initial hires when he started the company—as micromanaged roommates. We prompted him to envision his long-term identity: Did he merely want to be the founder, or did he aspire to be a long-term CEO? This urged him to re-craft his leadership identity. 

He decided, ”I want to be the CEO everyone wants to have.” His new future identity became a call to action for how he would engage differently, what skills he needed to learn, and what behaviors he needed to let go of.  He also imagined what his team would experience under his new leadership. This created a compelling, meaningful future self to strive for.

Once you clarify your desired future identity, you can leverage it to facilitate small, cumulative changes that add up. As James Clear highlights in Atomic Habits, by asking questions rooted in your evolving identity, you guide your actions. For example: Adam would ask himself, how would a good CEO delegate work? How would a seasoned CEO communicate with his team? As you become increasingly connected to your bigger-picture leadership narrative—both current and evolving—it becomes easier to sustain the necessary effort until intentional actions solidify into automatic habits. 

This shift in perspective unlocks resilience, and the hard work and discomfort becomes more bearable.  Your evolving future self paves the way to transformation. Take a few minutes to think about your future leadership identity:

  • What kind of leader do you want to be? What kind of impact do you want to have?
  • How would that leader show up in daily small actions? 
  • What would that leader do in the tougher moments?

Turn complaints into commitments: Reconnect to your power

Case study 3: Alexis, the unfulfilled director.

Alexis, a seasoned Program Director at a fast-paced telecommunications company, found himself drowning in a sea of tight deadlines, last-minute changes, and the pressure to do more without adequate resources.   Beneath his calm exterior, Alexis harbored a growing list of complaints. He was frustrated with the management’s approach to project planning, felt overwhelmed by the unrealistic expectations set upon him, and was disillusioned by the company’s lack of support for innovation. 

The job he once loved started to wear him out, and that was impacting his life at home.  

Alexis, despite his exhaustion, was making daily decisions that inadvertently contributed to his own weariness and Growth Paradox. His complaints weren’t just grievances; they were signposts pointing toward his neglected passion for personal well-being and quality time with his family. 

This revelation was transformative, so Alexis made a commitment to spend more time with his son. He began to prioritize his tasks judiciously, actively sought out additional support, and leaned into the power of delegation. This series of actions not only ameliorated his work-life balance but also served as a testament to the empowerment that comes from reclaiming one’s agency.

Hidden behind complaints is always something important to us that we are not getting; otherwise, why complain? For example, complaining about our boss’ micromanaging style highlights our need for autonomy. Complaining about a messy workplace might underline our need for safety and organization.  

Recognizing your choices and their impact is critical because it connects you to your sense of agency and power—“I am creating this current reality. I can create a new reality.” Consider the following questions:

  • What choices are you making today that continue to create an outcome you don’t want?
  • What choices could you make that would move you toward your desired outcome?
  • Pick one or two simple, low-risk, choices to experiment with. What kind of outcomes become possible when you make those different choices? 
  • What did you learn from that experiment? Any tweaks you want to make?
  • What other choices do you want to experiment with next? 
  • Rinse and repeat.

Freeing yourself from the Growth Paradox is not just about conquering the immediate challenges.  It is about challenging assumptions, aligning with your core values, developing a guiding vision of your future self, and connecting back to your power.  We all can create a new reality. Don’t let your complaints and the feeling of powerlessness keep you from achieving your dreams.  The essence to overcoming the Growth Paradox lies in finding deep meaningful connections to the work you do and the life your live.  Willpower matters, but feeling like the work is truly meaningful to you matters more. — with Jordan Stark