It Takes Versatility to Lead in a Volatile World


The last three years have posed serious challenges for leadership. The inability of many leaders to rise to the occasion revealed that the talent crisis organizations thought they had before the pandemic is worse than they imagined.

Research we conducted in the early stages of the Covid outbreak showed that leaders with a limited range of capabilities were overwhelmed as they struggled to guide their people and organizations through sudden and unprecedented change. On the other hand, more broadly capable, versatile leaders were effective at helping their people and organizations regroup, refocus, and continue to produce despite the upheaval.

Data collected since the first year of the pandemic — a time marked by waves of social unrest, economic challenges, and major changes in the workplace and employee attitudes — indicate that versatility is an even stronger component of effective leadership now than in the before times. The correlations between versatility and a variety of leadership outcomes — employee engagement, team agility, business unit productivity, and overall effectiveness — have gotten stronger.

In fact, in the 26 years that we’ve been studying versatile leadership with coworker ratings using a 360-degree instrument called the Leadership Versatility Index, its importance has gotten stronger over time. From the late-1990s to mid-2000s, versatility accounted for a little over a third of the variability in leadership effectiveness. By the late 2000s, that figure increased to half. During the first year of the pandemic, it shot up to nearly two-thirds. It has since come down a bit but remains higher than pre-pandemic figures.

As the world has become more prone to disruption, versatile leadership has become an increasingly important determinant of which organizations thrive versus merely hang on — or fall behind entirely.

Versatility Defined

We believe versatility is the master capability for leading in a VUCA world — that is, one characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. We define versatility as the ability to read and respond to change with a wide repertoire of complementary skills and behaviors. For instance, some circumstances call for leaders to take charge, force difficult issues, and make tough decisions, while others require leaders to enable, support, and include people. Similarly, organizations sometimes need leaders to focus on their future strategic direction and at other times to focus on day-to-day operations and execution.

Note that when paired, these leadership behaviors, like the Taoist concept of Yin and Yang, are opposing and yet complementary: Forceful and enabling provide a balanced blend of interpersonal behaviors for influencing others, while strategic and operational provide the range needed to address a host of organizational issues. One approach without its complementary approach is incomplete.

Versatile leaders deftly toggle between opposing behaviors. They can step up and make a call just as easily as they can bring people together to make group decisions. They can read the room and adjust their behavior accordingly, from asking questions and listening with an open mind to pushing an unpopular view one more time. They can also zoom out and envision change in big-picture terms and zoom in on the tactical details of implementing change. They can read the business, from playing out the chessboard five moves ahead to making the next move swiftly and with precision.

Versatility Is Rare

Unfortunately, versatile leaders are rare. Since 2013, we have assessed over 24,000 senior managers from a variety of industries around the world with the Leadership Versatility Index 360. According to coworker ratings of their behavior, fewer than 10% of these leaders are skilled at balancing forceful and enabling as well as strategic and operational leadership. Most executives are better at one set of behaviors in each pair — consequently, they tend to over-rely on them at the expense of complementary behaviors. Their strengths become weaknesses that create blind spots and limit their versatility.

More leaders rely more on forceful than on enabling behaviors, and many more rely on operational behaviors to the neglect of strategic behaviors. The table below shows the proportion of leaders from the past 10 years with different combinations of relative strengths. The forceful-operational pattern is most common, and the enabling-strategic pattern is the least common — slightly less common than versatile leaders who balance their use of forceful and enabling behaviors as well as strategic and operational behaviors.

Personality, Leadership, and Versatility

Research on the links between personality and leader behavior suggests that versatility is largely a learned capability. At first glance, the research seems paradoxical because personality is highly related to leadership behaviors in ways that you would expect — for instance, the Ambition scale of the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI) predicts coworker ratings of forceful behavior, the Interpersonal Sensitivity scale predicts enabling behavior, the Inquisitive scale predicts strategic behavior, and the Prudence scale predicts operational behavior, with very high scores predicting the behavior will be overused. The statistical relationships are strong, indicating that most leaders behave in ways that reflect their natural inclinations.

Consider the personality profiles, as assessed over the past five years with the HPI, of 1,655 senior managers with different patterns of leadership behavior as rated by their coworkers. Of the two forceful types, those who favor operational over strategic are higher on Prudence but lower on Inquisitive, Learning Approach, Sociability, and especially Interpersonal Sensitivity. The forceful operators are more conventional, practical, socially distant, and tough-minded, whereas the forceful strategists challenge convention and are more creative, intellectual, and socially engaging.

Of the two enabling types, those who favor operational over strategic are also higher on Prudence and lower on Inquisitive but are also the lowest of all leaders on Sociability and Ambition. The enabling operators are more conventional and practical than the enabling strategists, but what distinguishes them most is that they are more distant from other people and not as competitively driven.

However, the paradoxical part is that, unlike specific behaviors, personality is not a strong predictor of the combination of behaviors that defines versatility. The best correlate is Learning Approach, but it does not fully set apart versatile leaders. There simply is not a single personality profile that corresponds to versatile leadership.

When we examine the small percentage of executives who are indeed versatile, their personality profiles are all over the map. What they have in common, though, are career histories defined by a variety of jobs and work experiences that required learning skills and behaviors that don’t come naturally to them. They zigged and zagged across different functions, business units, and even industries and organizations. They had more assignments outside of their home countries. They often intentionally took “stretch” assignments into high-stakes, high-visibility roles for which they weren’t quite yet prepared. They worked for, with, and led a variety of people with different backgrounds, perspectives, and demographics. And their penchant for formal, systematic learning enabled them to accumulate hard-won lessons of experience and new skills and capabilities.

Versatility Is a Meta-Competency

This leads to our conclusion that versatility is not just another leadership competency but rather a meta-competency. That is, it reflects a balanced and well-rounded pattern of competencies that suggests an underlying capacity to master specific skills and behaviors and enable the continual learning of new ones. We view it as a higher-order capability that emerges when leaders develop competence with a wide array of specific skills and behaviors, learn how to appropriately balance the opposing and complementary ones, and cultivate the wisdom and situational judgment to know when to use which behavior — and to what degree.

Figuring out how to combine complementary competencies and behaviors is a major challenge, and it is what makes versatility a higher-order, emergent capability. When we analyze the leadership outcomes associated with forceful, enabling, strategic, and operational behaviors in one equation, they statistically account for sizable differences in those outcomes. However, when we add to the equation a variable that represents how well-balanced leaders are on forceful and enabling and on strategic and operational, it significantly enhances statistical prediction. Versatility is more than the sum of its parts.

Further, as leaders develop versatility, it facilitates the acquisition of new skills and competencies in a virtuous cycle. As they expand their perspectives and repertoires, it becomes easier to continue expanding them. On the other hand, executives who build their careers around their innate talents and playing to strengths have a narrower range and limited ability to expand it. When the game changes, they are at risk of finding themselves fit for a world that no longer exists.

Developing Versatility

There are different routes to versatility for different kinds of leaders, but three principles apply to all. First, versatility requires understanding your tendencies — which behaviors come naturally and which ones do not — and this understanding can be gained with a competent personality assessment. It also helps to get feedback from coworkers regarding your behavior and its impact. This is useful for calibrating what you are doing effectively and what you could do to be more effective by adding new skills and behaviors as well as being more selective with those on which you may over-rely.

With self-understanding, becoming more versatile involves learning how to do what does not come naturally and learning how to prevent strengths from becoming weaknesses through overuse. The best way to learn these lessons is through a variety of challenging work experiences — especially those that stretch you out of your comfort zone. There is little learning in the comfort zone and little comfort in the learning zone. And it is not enough to go through the experience; the experience has to go through you. Reflective, humble, and nimble learners seem best able to absorb the lessons of experience.

Finally, becoming more versatile also involves an evolution in your self-concept or identity, the story you tell yourself about who you are. Leaders who lack versatility tend to define themselves in a polarized way — for example, “I am a hard charger, not a soft pushover” or “I believe in power through people, not power over people.” They over-idealize the virtue in the way of leading that they identify with while simultaneously distancing themselves from the complementary side, which they often portray in extreme, caricaturized terms. The side they turn away from becomes their blind side.

In contrast, those who develop versatility come to see themselves in a more nuanced, differentiated and yet integrated way: “I am a hard charger who believes in power through people.” They grasp the necessary interdependence of opposing ways of leading and can imagine doing both in a way that feels authentic and genuine, something they can feel good about. This mindset shift allows them to become a better, more expanded, and capable version of themselves.

No one knows what our disruptive world will throw at leaders next. They don’t know, either. We do know, however, that those who possess a wide and balanced repertoire of complementary competencies, skills, and behaviors — and the wisdom to know which one to use in a given situation — are likely to be most effective at leading their people, teams, and organizations through the turbulence. And we know that this meta-competency — versatility — can be learned, coached, and developed.

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