Agility, adaptability, versatility — call it what you will, there is no denying that flexibility is crucial for business success in the 21st century. The relentless pace of technological change, increasingly fierce global competition and flatter organizational structures demand nimble, fleet-footed managers who can adapt on the fly to changing conditions.
Alongside intensifying complexity and interconnectedness in the external environment, there is a growing concern that executives do not possess the necessary behavioral repertoires and mindsets to lead effectively in this new context. A recent IBM study found the No. 1 concern among 1,500 CEOs was the increasing complexity in their operating environments, which they didn’t believe their managers were equipped to handle.
Resulting concerns for learning professionals become how to assess managers to identify those who can rise to the challenges of this new reality and then provide the resources necessary for them to continue learning and growing into flexible leaders.
The traditional approach suffers from two shortcomings. First, most leadership models conceptualize flexibility as just another competency among many rather than as a master capability reflecting the learning and development of a broad range of competencies. We propose an alternative to the competency model based on the notion of leadership versatility — the ability to balance paradoxical and seemingly contradictory dimensions of leadership.
This mastery of opposites approach acknowledges that for every truth about leadership, there is an equal and opposing truth. Based on our research literature summarized in 2010 in the Consulting Psychology Journal, we have concluded that two major pairs of opposites cover the lion’s share of leadership. We call them forceful and enabling leadership, and strategic and operational leadership. These two pairs are complementary in that forceful and enabling represent the interpersonal how of leadership while strategic and operational represent the organizational what.
Unlike a linear competency model that merely lists the skills needed to perform a given role with no sense of the dynamic interplay among them, this approach better conforms to the tensions and tradeoffs that make leading a balancing act. Research on more than 5,000 executives and senior managers for our “Leadership Versatility Index Version 3.0 Facilitator’s Guide” indicates this kind of versatility accounts for half of what separates the most well-regarded leaders from the least well-regarded. Also, versatile leaders have employees with higher job satisfaction, commitment and engagement, and their teams are more cohesive and productive.
The second problem concerns how we measure behavior. In the children’s tale “Goldilocks,” a young girl samples a bowl of porridge that is too hot and one that is too cold before choosing one that is just right. We all intuitively recognize that too little and too much are both problems.
This principle was formally established in psychology 100 years ago with the Yerkes-Dodson law, the famous inverted U-shaped function relating arousal to performance: too little arousal leads to a lack of effort and poor performance, but too much is overwhelming and also degrades performance. Between the two extremes is an optimal level of arousal for peak performance.
Despite this wisdom and the principles of modern psychology, most competency measures use five-point rating scales that fail to tell the whole story. These scales do not indicate when managers do too much of something. Instead, they seem to assume that more is better and imply that a high score is the best score. They do not isolate doing too much as a distinct cause of ineffectiveness.
An improved leadership model should be employed in combination with a more accurate way to assess flexibility. This will provide an important first step to help executives become versatile leaders. It will also increase their ability to think in more complex ways required by the unpredictable environmental realities they face.
Learning professionals who apply these principles can provide competitive advantage for their organizations, move beyond outdated approaches to leadership development and focus on partnering with executives to leverage feedback. This will increase self-awareness, expand their versatility and refine their capacity to make sense of an increasingly complex world.
Rob Kaiser is president of Kaiser Leadership Solutions. Darren Overfield is a senior consultant for Kaplan DeVries. They can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.