If your organization’s system for developing leadership wasn’t dead already, 2020 put it out of its misery for good. With unknown crises lurking around the corner, prep your top talent by prioritizing versatility.
By Rob Kaiser
The black swan of COVID-19 came from out of nowhere to disrupt daily life and derail an historically strong economy, with social and economic aftershocks that will reverberate for years to come. The pandemic has also revealed some things about the state of play in leadership that we have to face.
Gross disparities in how leaders have responded make it painfully obvious how unprepared many of them were for the crisis. Further, a distinguishing quality of those who were able to rise to the challenge is versatility: They drew on a broad range of mindsets and behaviors in leading their teams and organizations through constantly shifting, and often conflicting, priorities and challenges.
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This highlights a distinct form of leadership that’s well suited for disruptive change and simultaneously exposes significant problems with the way leadership is typically defined, assessed, and developed.
The good news? The pandemic has taught us some instructive lessons about the kind of leadership that will be required in the “next normal,” which surely will be more daunting and tumultuous than the pre-pandemic world.
My research—conducted in the early stages of the crisis—pulls these insights into sharp relief. Let’s consider the findings and unpack their implications for talent professionals.
Versatile Leadership Is Essential During a Crisis
The research involved six global companies, all based in the U.S. and representing the high-tech, financial, and professional-services industries. Each company routinely uses the Leadership Versatility Index, a 360 instrument for the assessment and development of versatility.
From April to June 2020, just as the COVID-19 crisis was upending business as usual, the instrument was administered to 193 executives, directors, and managers and their coworkers.
We created a comparison sample by selecting a match for each of the leaders assessed during the crisis from among leaders in the same organization who were assessed the year prior. The leaders in the two samples were equal in terms of organizational levels, tenure in current role, management experience, age, and gender. This allowed us to isolate and compare the effects of versatile leadership in pre-crisis and crisis contexts.
Coworker ratings of versatility were highly correlated with team adaptability, productivity, and overall effectiveness in both samples. However, the correlations were significantly stronger during the crisis. The effects were accentuated at both ends of the continuum: The positive impact of higher versatility and the negative impact of lower versatility were exaggerated in the pandemonium of the pandemic.
In other words, the more flexible and well-rounded leaders excelled at guiding their teams through the extraordinary upheaval, whereas the more limited leaders were overwhelmed by it.
These findings indicate that versatile leadership is a vital catalyst for teams and organizations to regroup, refocus, and adjust to disruptive change and continue to produce, especially amid the sudden, game-changing shock of an unprecedented global crisis.
What Versatility Is and Isn’t
We define versatility as the ability to read and respond to change with a wide repertoire of complementary perspectives and behaviors. Reading change involves cognitive skills for scanning the environment and making sense of what’s happening. Responding involves behavioral skills for taking effective action in light of that interpretation.
In order to gauge a leader’s repertoire of complementary behaviors, the Leadership Versatility Index measures their degree of flexibility and balance in terms of how they lead and what they lead:
- “How” they lead concerns Forceful and Enabling interpersonal behaviors.
- “What” they lead concerns behaviors for addressing Strategic and Operational imperatives.
The assessment includes 12 pairs of forceful and enabling items and 12 pairs of strategic and operational items. Ratings of too much of some behaviors and too little of their complementary behaviors indicate a more limited repertoire and result in lower versatility scores. Ratings of the right amount on complementary behaviors indicate a broader repertoire and result in higher versatility scores.
This particular framework is one of a growing number of models that define leadership in terms of the opposing behaviors needed to manage the tensions and tradeoffs of organizational performance.
For instance, Charles O’Reilly and Michael Tushman’s ambidextrous leadership framework considers the twin abilities to explore new strategic opportunities and to exploit them with flawless execution. These newer models zero in on what the HR thought leader Dave Ulrich has identified as the most important leadership competency today: managing paradox.
Recent thinking has also noted how growing complexity and the accelerating pace of disruptive change are speeding up the collision of competing priorities, requiring leaders to juggle paradoxical demands more than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic further amplified this balancing act: Suddenly, leaders found themselves constantly having to take decisive action in a fluid situation with little, sometimes confusing, information.
Rapidly adjusting to social distancing measures that required teams to collaborate over virtual platforms, leaders had to solve practical, technical infrastructure problems while also soothing their people’s emotional needs and very real safety concerns, not to mention all the complications of working from home.
Many had to swing into survival mode with cost-cutting measures and at the same time ensure their organizations had the resources to perform now and be well positioned for an eventual recovery. Some even had to reinvent their business models on the fly while also providing a semblance of stability to allow for traction and forward momentum.
My colleagues and I have been conducting a long-term program of research that has followed this seismic shift in increasing complexity, velocity of change, and the dilemmas they pose.
When we began studying versatility in the late 1990s, it statistically accounted for a little over a third of effective leadership. Over the decade following the global financial crisis of 2008, it accounted for half. And during the COVID-19 crisis, it approached two-thirds.
As the world has gotten more and more VUCA, versatile leadership has played a stronger and stronger role in which organizations thrive and which ones fall behind.
Unfortunately, versatile leadership is still rare. Our current global norms, based on over 25,000 upper-level managers and executives, indicate that fewer than 10 percent are truly versatile. Data from McKinsey, Korn/Ferry, and Zenger-Folkman converge on a similar figure, raising the question of what talent professionals can do to better identify, select, and develop versatile leaders.
What Does This Mean for Talent Professionals?
Warren Buffet famously said, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who has been swimming naked.”
The pandemic has left everyone exposed—from the leaders who must navigate uncharted waters to the talent professionals responsible for building leadership capacity. Before COVID-19 turned the world completely upside down, there was a dawning recognition that corporations were facing a leadership crisis, and that traditional approaches to assessing, selecting, and developing leaders weren’t working.
When the dust settles, I suspect we’ll realize the situation is far worse than we thought.
In the spirit of the adage that “crisis presents opportunity,” now’s the time to rethink how we develop leadership that’s capable of handling the growing uncertainty, complexity, and dilemmas of our fast-changing modern world.
How to Define Leadership
First, we need to reconsider how organizations define leadership. The default approach has been to employ competency models: lists of skills, abilities, and behaviors thought to be necessary to address the most pressing strategic challenges facing the company.
These models, however, rarely consider the interrelations among competencies. They obscure the identification of leaders who can deftly apply opposing skills and behaviors at the right time, to the right degree. At a minimum, competency models can be made more relevant by organizing them in terms of yin-yang pairs of complementary competencies, much as the versatility and ambidextrous-leadership frameworks do. Executives often resonate with these models because they reflect the paradoxical demands that make their jobs so difficult.
In addition, competency models can quickly outlive their shelf life in a fast-paced world. By the time they’re articulated and agreed to by stakeholders, the necessary skills have changed. This is especially true today, when uncertainty and ambiguity make it difficult to accurately anticipate what leaders will have to do to assure a viable and thriving organization. This is where the value of a meta-competency like versatility comes in: It puts the focus on an underlying capacity and willingness to learn and adapt that enables leaders to deal with new challenges by acquiring new competencies quickly.
How to Develop Versatile Leadership
The next challenge is to develop managers into versatile leaders. Our research into effective leadership, along with our practice of helping global companies strengthen their leadership cultures, points to a conclusion confirmed by other research groups: Versatility is made, not born.
For example, versatility isn’t a particular personality type. The most versatile executives we’ve studied and advised don’t have a lot in common in terms of traits and temperaments. But what they do share is a background of work experiences characterized by variety, intensity, and adversity, as well as a willingness to step outside of their comfort zones.
They’ve been stretched by broadening experiences that teach perspectives, skills, and behaviors that don’t come naturally. And in the process, they’ve learned how to learn in novel environments.
The talent management guru Bob Eichinger put it succinctly:
Career Diversity X Learning Agility = Versatility
Developing versatile leaders, then, requires intentionally providing high potentials with a career track that builds on their strengths and puts them in new and unfamiliar roles in which they must widen their perspective and learn how to do what they don’t know how to do. Mentoring and coaching can accelerate development by providing a chance to periodically reflect and consolidate these leadership lessons in an expanded portfolio of leadership mindsets and behaviors.
Formal programs also can play a role. One key is experiential exercises that involve ambiguity and adapting to unexpected change, which demonstrate the limits to relying on familiar approaches and drive home the necessity of versatility. In addition to teaching skills and frameworks for dealing with uncertainty and disruption, they can also be designed to include a diverse group of participants who can learn valuable perspectives and skills from each other—while also expanding their networks.
This kind of social learning points to another way to grow an organization’s capacity for versatile leadership: the creation of diverse teams composed of people with complementary talents who collectively bring a fuller range of perspectives, expertise, and behaviors. Of course, the challenge is promoting synergy by helping diverse groups learn how to minimize the potential conflict in their differences so they can meld their distinct superpowers into versatile teamwork.
The Road Ahead
No one knows precisely what will happen next, but we do have a good idea about what will be necessary to deal with whatever happens. And despite all the uncertainty, one thing seems clear: Organizations that learn from the current crisis and adapt will have an advantage. As Ernest Hemmingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
Now’s the time to reboot a broken system for developing leadership by prioritizing the versatility it takes to deal with the unknown challenges currently brewing in some unconsidered corner of the world.
Rob Kaiser is the president of Kaiser Leadership Solutions, which provides innovative tools, methods, and advisory services to help improve organizational performance through better leadership.
Original Research Article
Kaiser, R. B. (2020). Leading in an unprecedented global crisis: The heightened importance of versatility. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 72(3), 135–154. Available here