Needed: versatile leaders

How leaders handle threats and turmoil matters for their own careers as well as employees

There is no shortage of disruptions to our workplaces and to our careers. They come in two styles: one transient and the other sustained. There are the short-lived perturbations, for example our current experiences with inflation, Covid, the war in Ukraine, and spotty supply chain shortages. Then there are the disturbances that have roots in recent history and continually transform, such as the evolutions of globalization and technology, including the advent of generative AI. Taken as a whole, it can seem as if there is little time for complacency or work that is of slow tempo.

Managers seem especially exposed to the fluctuations and inconsistencies of the modern workplace. They are called upon to guide direct reports through turbulence and insecurity while attempting to follow strategic policies. This can be quite challenging.

The way leaders handle threats and turmoil matters for the health of their careers and of the careers of workers who are impacted by managers’ approach to volatility.

Versatile leaders have been identified as valuable resources for a workplace to have during times of upheaval. They can be beneficial when the need arises to manage resources efficiently to remain productive. Maintaining employee engagement and adaptability during periods of uncertainty requires a special kind of leader. Organizations are increasingly aware of how important it is to have versatile leaders.

Rob Kaiser of Kaiser Leadership Solutions and Ryne Sherman and Robert Hogan, both of Hogan Assessment Solutions, have been studying versatility in leadership for 26 years. They note how, from the late ‘90s to the mid-2000s, co-worker ratings of leadership identified the trait of versatility as an important leadership trait 35 percent of the time. By the Great Recession in 2008, versatility was seen as a significant leadership attribute in 50 percent of the ratings. And by the time of the pandemic, it shot to 63 percent.

The demand for versatile leadership is growing in recognition. Given the rate of change expanding as it is, it’s easy to see why.

Kaiser et al. define versatility as the leadership ability to function effectively in a context characterized as volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Within that setting, versatile leaders can quickly adapt by applying a range of appropriate skills and behaviors that re-shuffle and re-deploy resources to preserve productivity.

This type of leadership manifests in two distinct ways. One style is more forceful and direct, as in a single point of command tasked with making the hard choices. The other approach reaches out to employees in an empowering and supportive way to provide tranquility and ease concerns. The skilled practitioner of versatility knows how to shift between these modes as the situations dictate.

In fact, a leader who may be well versed and experienced in one of these modes, but unable to adroitly shift to the other, does not qualify as a versatile leader and indeed may be a lower-quality leader overall due to their situational limitations. However, the good news is that versatility can be an acquired capability.

Counterintuitively, versatile leaders are not correlated with any specific personality type. To the contrary, versatile leaders are represented across multiple personality types. Given that the research of Kaiser et al identifies fewer than 10 percent of the leadership workforce as versatile, the incentive is there for increased versatility training.

Although personality alone may not be a strong predictor of versatility, other background elements are. It has been documented that leaders who have had many kinds of work experiences requiring the development of a diverse range of skills in circumstances for which they were not already highly qualified can be de facto versatility training. The more a leader finds herself or himself faced with assignments that are a stretch, combined with an innate attitude that sees these duties as learning opportunities, then versatility is enhanced. Potential leaders who want to be relevant in today’s world should take note.

Bill Ryan writes about career, employment and economic topics from his home in North Sutton.

Categories: Business Advice