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The best leaders are versatile

a striped pencil in a coil shape

Two big challenges characterize leadership today. One is the need to juggle a growing series of paradoxical demands (do more with less; cut costs but innovate; think globally, act locally). The other is the unprecedented pace of “disruptive change,” which speeds up the interaction of these demands and simultaneously increases the pressure on organizations to adapt.

These challenges amplify the need for versatile leaders who have the ability to cope with a variety of changes and the wherewithal to resolve competing priorities. It is not an overstatement to say that versatility is the most important component of leading effectively today.

Versatile leaders have more engaged employees and higher performing teams. Their business units are more adaptable and innovative. Their organizations are more capable of gaining a competitive advantage because they know how to disrupt before personally disrupted.

“Versatile leaders are more capable of gaining a competitive advantage because they know how to disrupt before personally disrupted.”

Creating a framework

For almost 25 years, my colleagues and I have worked to help leaders improve their versatility, and we have found the above to be true in a range of industries across North America, Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Throughout our work, we have coached hundreds of senior executives and systematically studied their development, as well as assessed more than 30,000 upper-level managers in mostly large, global corporations as varied as Google, The Walt Disney Company, Allianz, Schneider Electric and more.

Our practice and research have helped us create a framework that defines versatility and how to develop it.

What is versatility?

In short, versatility is the capacity to read and respond to change with a wide repertoire of complementary skills and behaviors.

Leaders are typically better at reading change than responding to it, largely because developing a broad range of behaviors requires a systematic effort that often pushes them out of their comfort zones.

To help leaders understand how to expand their behavioral repertoire, we devised a practical model that synthesizes the work on leadership behavior from the last 100 years of research in both psychology and management.

Because of the paradoxical demands versatile leaders face, our model emphasizes opposing but complementary behaviors: It makes the distinction between, on the one hand, how you lead (in terms of interpersonal behaviors for influencing and interacting with other people) and, on the other hand, what you lead (in terms of the organizational issues you focus them on).

Think yin and yang, where both types of behaviors are good and necessary, and each complements the other.

“Leaders are typically better at reading change than responding to it, largely because developing a broad range of behaviors requires a systematic effort that often pushes them out of their comfort zones.”

How versus what

“How you lead” makes the distinction between forceful and enabling leadership. Forceful leadership is about asserting personal and positional power.

Enabling leadership is about involving others and bringing out their best. Both include specific pairs of behaviors: taking charge versus empowering, being decisive versus being participative and being demanding versus being supportive.

Similarly, “what you lead” makes the distinction between strategic and operational leadership. Strategic leadership is about positioning the organization to be competitive in the long run. Operational leadership is about implementation and getting things done.

Both also include specific pairs of behaviors: setting direction versus driving execution, growing the business versus focusing resources and introducing innovation versus providing order and stability.

The first step toward helping leaders develop versatility is assessing their current ability to use an effective mix of the above behaviors. In our work, we use a 360 feedback instrument that asks coworkers (and the leaders themselves) to rate their use of forceful, enabling, strategic and operational behaviors using a unique scale ranging from “too little” to the “right amount” to “too much.”

This approach shows leaders which behaviors they need to emphasize more and which behaviors they need to emphasize less.

Strength becomes weakness

Our research quantifies what we often see in our coaching practice: Only a small number of leaders (fewer than one in 10) have fully mastered the range of skills in our practical model.

Most tend to have a bias. They favor leading in ways that are based on their strengths — the behaviors and skills they have comfortably developed, or perhaps even overdeveloped, because they come most naturally to them.

In fact, we find that leaders are five times more likely to use behaviors related to their strengths when other behaviors would be more effective. As a result, their strengths become their weaknesses (as the saying goes, the bigger your hammer, the more every problem looks like a nail).

The goal for most leaders, then, is to develop the ability to consider opposing needs and avoid maximizing one at the expense of the other simply because their current skillset makes them more attuned to it.

While diving deep into the details of execution on a project, for example, can the leader also keep an eye on the big picture? Or while involving the team in a decision, can the leader also synthesize their input and make the call?

It’s a tall order. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

How do you develop versatility?

If versatility is central to effective leadership but also rare, how can managers become more versatile leaders? Over the years, extensive work and research — not just by us but also many leadership experts — have demonstrated three broad strategies.

The first is learning from a variety of different and challenging work experiences that can broaden their perspective, promote a wider range of skills and provide a network of colleagues with different expertise and points of view.

Versatile leaders tend to have more diverse career paths and work experiences than others, as well as the learning agility to absorb lessons and incorporate them in their leadership tool kits. We encourage managers to compare their current skills and experiences to those needed in jobs they aspire to — and seek out roles that can stretch them.

For instance, being a part of the strategic planning process — even as “gopher” or notetaker — can provide exposure to new skills practiced less in tactical jobs. Seeking commercial experience in different businesses is also a great way to prepare yourself for enterprise leadership.

The second is ongoing feedback and development. It’s crucial to get input about the impact and effectiveness of your behavior.

Versatile leaders not only respond well to change, they also change their behavior in response to constructive criticism. With everything in constant flux it’s helpful to hear from coworkers about what adjustments you can make to strike a better balance.

“Versatile leaders not only respond well to change, they also change their behavior in response to constructive criticism.”

A simple way to get this feedback is to ask respected colleagues the questions recommended by the late Peter Drucker: “What should I stop, start and continue doing to be more effective?”

A more involved, and systematic, approach would be to complete a personality or strengths assessment, and follow up with others by asking, “How do you see me using these specific strengths? Do I ever tend to overdo them?”

The third strategy for developing versatility is personal development: becoming a better-rounded person.

This involves being aware and open to opposing skills and behaviors and not being blinded by your strengths. Versatile leaders show a pattern of stepping beyond the familiar and comfortable, often intentionally, to stretch themselves.

Their less versatile counterparts, on the other hand, often have a rigid and narrow view of themselves as a particular type of person and think opposing perspectives and behaviors are worth avoiding rather than experimented with and learned from.

The challenge is again paradoxical: Can you maintain a strong, coherent sense of self while also allowing for the possibility of becoming an expanded and more capable version of yourself? One useful strategy is to periodically invite colleagues with skills and perspectives different from your own out to coffee or lunch.

With an open mind, try to see things from their point of view and understand their ways of thinking. You might even ask what they are reading, how they learn and sprinkle some of those examples into your regular routine.

A great debate

Related to this third strategy, there is a great debate raging, not just among leadership professionals but also sports coaches, teachers and parents who want to prepare athletes, students and children for an increasingly uncertain future.

On the one hand, there are those who recommend maximizing strengths, which leads to people becoming narrow specialists. On the other hand, there are those who recommend trying a variety of things, which leads to people becoming broad generalists. David Epstein’s book, Range, provides an excellent analysis of this debate.

Our program of research and practice squares with Epstein’s conclusion: The wider a leader’s lens on the world, the larger their repertoire of skills, abilities and behaviors.

The broader they are as a person, the more likely they are to lead their people, teams and organizations to success in a rapidly-changing world.

Republished with permission, this article first appeared on Harvard Business Review.  

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