Photo credit: Jonas Legarth/Thinkers50
University of Delaware researcher Wendy Smith is driven “to leave a better world to my children, and to the generations that come after.”
For Smith, that means researching new approaches to address our greatest challenges.
“My scholarship explores the challenges and tensions that we face in our world, our lives and our leadership,” Smith says.
“We all experience competing demands (financial and social, global and local, short-term and long-term, self and other, work and life … and more),” she adds. “Traditionally, we have assumed that these opposing demands are separate and we need to choose between them — an either/or approach.
“Yet if we notice that these opposing demands are also interdependent and mutually reinforcing, then we shift to adopting a paradoxical mindset and engaging a more effective and creative both/and approach.”
Smith, who is the Dana J. Johnson Professor of Management at the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics and co-founder of its Women’s Leadership Initiative, has long focused her research on how business leaders and managers can more effectively navigate paradoxes — the apparent contradictions that complicate our lives and jobs, especially if we’re looking for one right answer.
Some of the world’s top management thinkers have taken notice of her work. This month, Smith and her collaborator Marianne Lewis, dean of the Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati, received the Breakthrough Idea Award from Thinkers50, a global ranking group that highlights new and important ideas in management.
For this award, Thinkers50 says it looks for an idea that’s a “Eureka moment in management,” a radical idea that has the potential to permanently change the way we think about business.”
Thinkers50 holds its biennial awards gala in London. Smith traveled to England for the presentation on Nov. 6.
Smith and Lewis explored this breakthrough idea in their 2022 book, Both/And Thinking: Embracing Creative Tensions to Solve Your Toughest Problems, in which they identify why it is so natural for people to adopt either/or thinking, why that approach is detrimental, and how organizations and individuals can be more effective by “using ‘both/and’ thinking to make more creative, flexible, and impactful decisions in a world of competing demands.”
“I have been honored about the ways in which our translation of this idea in the book has been picked up over the last year,” Smith said. “The recognition acknowledges the value of these ideas and helps get these ideas into the hands of a broader community of people.”
Our current national and international politics vividly illustrates the need to embrace paradox and complexity. Smith points to linear, reductionist thinking that promotes ever-more extreme polarization, instead of fostering conversation and dialogue. “We’re seeing that play out right now in the Middle East, where the results are fatal.”
Other recognition continues to roll in for Smith’s work. In June, Thinkers50 also added Smith and Lewis’ book to its list of the best new management books of 2023.
The list promotes books that are relevant, thoroughly researched and that make the knowledge accessible to readers. Tom Peters, a noted management leader and author, said he couldn’t exaggerate their book’s importance and originality. “The argument is flawless. The case studies are engaging and powerful. And every significant point is backed up by unassailable research.”
“Our book, and this award, honors the expanding community of incredible colleagues and scholars around the world who have contributed significant insights to understand the paradoxical nature of our world and how people can more effectively adopt both/and approaches,” Smith said.
Smith is also a fixture on an annual list of Highly Cited Researchers compiled by Clarivate, recognizing those who have “demonstrated significant and broad influence reflected in their publication of multiple highly cited papers over the last decade.” Her name is on the 2023 list, just announced in November — the fifth straight year she was included.
She’s applied both/and thinking to her own career, not limiting herself to an identity as a researcher or professor. Smith and Lewis not only publish research, but promote a community that continues to explore and build on these ideas. Their efforts include organizing conferences and professional development workshops, and creating a newsletter, Smith said.
In turn, the community inspires her work, its combined insights contributing to the book she co-authored.
The ideas aren’t new, she says. Rather, she and Lewis draw on ancient wisdom from sources as varied as Confucianism, Aboriginal Australian tradition, and the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. The philosophical thread runs through both Eastern and Western thought, she argues, along with multiple disciplines like quantum physics and psychoanalysis.
“We in the social and organizational world are kind of late to the paradox party,” Smith said.
For their efforts to rectify this, Smith and Lewis were also recognized in 2021 with the Academy of Management Review’s (AMR) Decade Award for their 2011 paper, “Toward a Theory of Paradox: A Dynamic Equilibrium Model of Organizing.” The award honors the AMR paper that had the greatest impact on research over the previous 10 years.
“One of the things that I feel most deeply proud of … is [to] have worked with and helped cultivate a community of scholars for which this is a legitimate lens, and who are collaborating with one another around the world,” Smith said.