Big Ideas

Versatility: You Can’t Lead Without It Today

By Rob Kaiser

Two big challenges complicate leadership today. First are the paradoxical demands that make leading a balancing act: doing more with less, thinking global but acting local, engaging people while holding them accountable, zooming out to see the big picture and zooming in to grasp the details of execution, and more.

Second is the unprecedented pace of disruptive change that requires organizations to continuously switch gears. Today’s leaders have to be versatile, able to roll with the punches and adapt on the fly. And as the pace of change, degree of uncertainty, and complexity of the business world have accelerated, versatility has become increasingly important to effective leadership. In fact, it may be the single most important factor in determining which leaders thrive and which ones fail in today’s VUCA world.

For over 20 years, I have been helping executives become more versatile leaders and studying how versatility is developed and how it is related to organizational performance. In that work, my colleagues and I have created a simple way to understand the complex and conflicting performance demands that leaders have to master in order to be versatile.

We define versatility simply as the ability to read and respond to change with a wide repertoire of complementary skills, abilities, and behaviors. There are two parts to this. First is reading change—which is a cognitive, sense-making activity of paying attention, scanning the environment, and recognizing when things are in transition. It could be a shift in the market, evolving customer preferences, bold competitor moves, new technologies, or literally a change in the weather. It could be on a much smaller scale, such as moving from one meeting to the next, talking with two employees who have different sets of needs, an organizational shake-up and restructure, or taking on a new job with unfamiliar role requirements. The key is to recognize when a different approach is required.

Versatility is the ability to read and respond to change with a wide repertoire of complementary skills

The second part is responding to change—which is the behavioral component. To help their people and organizations adapt, leaders have to deftly toggle among complementary skills and behaviors and adjust how they apply them. We find it helpful to consider two broad aspects of leadership behavior: interpersonal style (how leaders interact with other people) and organizational focus (what types of issues leaders address).

To provide specific, practical guidance, we devised a practical model to summarize the last 100 years of behavioral science in both psychology and management on leadership behavior—the specific things leaders do (see The Versatile Leader, 2006, Jossey-Bass).


And to represent the often conflicting, paradoxical demands that leaders face we organized this model in terms of opposing but complementary behaviors: Think yin and yang, where both are good and necessary and each is completed by the other. For instance, the “interpersonal how” from psychological studies of leadership and the “organizational what” from management studies form a pair of opposing but complementary categories.

Within the interpersonal how, we define forceful and enabling categories of behavior—where forceful is about asserting personal and position power and enabling is about involving others and bringing out their best. This involves specific pairs of behaviors: taking charge versus empowering, being decisive versus being participative, and being demanding versus being supportive.

Within the organizational what, we define strategic and operational categories—where strategic is about positioning the organization to be competitive in the long run and operational is about focusing the organization to get things done now. This also involves specific pairs of behaviors: setting direction versus driving execution, growing the business versus focusing resources, and supporting innovation versus providing order and stability.

Versatile leaders are able to respond to changing conditions by using the approach that is most appropriate for the challenge at hand. For instance, when there is a fundamental shift in the market they rely on strategic behaviors to reposition the organization. When competition is driving prices down they focus on operating efficiencies to realize better margins. When there is an urgent crisis versatile leaders take quick, decisive action but when there is time to think things through to reach a high-quality decision they pivot to a more participative style to get the best input.

Fewer than 1 in 10 upper-level managers are versatile leaders

The problem with leadership today is that few leaders are able to pivot from one behavior to the next and nimbly apply each depending on what is needed. In our global database of over 20,000 upper-level managers, fewer than one in 10 demonstrate this kind of versatility. Instead, most rely on one approach to the exclusion of its complementary approach: They are too forceful and not enabling enough, too operational and not strategic enough. (On occasion, we also find some, albeit the minority, who are too enabling and too strategic.)

The point is that most leaders have a bias in favor of one way of leading—and a prejudice against opposing but complementary ways of leading. This bias is based on their strengths: the behaviors and skills that come naturally to them and that they have developed, perhaps even overdeveloped, through repeated use. In fact, we find that leaders are five times more likely to use behaviors related to their strengths when other behaviors would be more appropriate. This is how “a strength can become a weakness”: the bigger your hammer, the more every problem looks like a nail!

However, we have found that the degree to which leaders are able to appropriately use both forceful and enabling styles and to focus on the strategic big picture as well the operational detail is related to their effectiveness. The more versatile leaders have more engaged and committed employees and higher performing teams that work well together and get more stuff done. We have found these strong statistical relationships in a range of industries across North America, Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

In fact, just as the business world has gotten more complex, fast-changing, and disruptive over the last 20 years the statistical relationship between versatility and effectiveness has steadily increased. When we started in the early 1990s, versatility explained about a quarter to a third of the variance in leadership effectiveness. Data since 2010 shows versatility to explain about half of the variance in effectiveness. Versatility has always been important—it’s the central premise to the old situational leadership theories, after all. But today’s VUCA world seems to make versatility more important than ever.

Versatility explains about half of what it means to be an effective leader in today's VUCA world

So if versatility is so central to effective leadership yet is so rare, how can managers learn to become more versatile leaders? It involves two types of learning and development: the outer work of behavior change and the inner work of mindset change. It isn’t enough for leaders to learn the full range of opposing but complementary behavioral skills in the versatility framework. They have to change their minds in order to change their behavior.

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