Developing Versatile Leadership

Leadership consists of opposing strengths, and most leaders have a natural tendency to overdevelop one at the expense of its counterpart. The resulting imbalance diminishes their effectiveness. But leaders who work to guard against such lopsidedness can increase their versatility and their impact.

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Modern conceptions of leadership suffer from a serious limitation. Although it is generally acknowledged that effective leaders must possess a number of sometimes seemingly contradictory qualities and skill sets, the idea that a strength taken to an extreme can be a weakness does not seem to have registered fully in the practice of management.1 The notion that inadequate performance results from underdoing any of the requisite skills — delegating, giving direction, communicating, cooperating with peers and so forth — is well established and reflected in most formal systems designed to assess managers for selection or development. However, the idea that performance problems can just as easily spring from taking a given behavior to an extreme has received far less attention.

Perhaps the focus on overdoing hasn’t been as sharp because its problematic aspects are not immediately obvious — after all, leaders often must go to extremes to meet tough challenges. It is difficult to draw the line, however, between making the serious effort required to get things done and going too far.2 A problem commonly seen in recently promoted senior executives, for example, is their difficulty in adjusting their skill sets to the requirements of their higher-level jobs. What had, in their previous positions, been a seemingly inoffensive, even useful, tendency to get heavily involved in operational detail can become a big liability in their new roles, resulting in the misallocation of time and attention away from strategic considerations or getting in the way of direct reports’ ability to do their jobs. Still, even in executive positions there are situations that require the individual to get deeply involved. For senior managers, then, effectiveness hinges on the ability to appropriately gear their leadership qualities and skills to the circumstances at hand.

The lack of balance in leadership, which is linked to the idea of overdoing and is well known to individual managers, has also not fully registered in the practice of management. When presented with two opposing approaches, people in general have a tendency to polarize, placing a high value on the approach in which they have greater faith and competence while overlooking or demeaning the value of the other. Despite their obvious intelligence, executives are no different. They may be too task-oriented and not sufficiently people-oriented, too tough and not responsive enough to people’s needs, too big-picture-oriented with not enough emphasis on planning and follow-through.



1. The concept that overused strengths can become weaknesses is not entirely absent from the field of leadership assessment, though it is rarely reflected in the design of standard tools. When considered, it tends to be treated as an afterthought rather than integral to the design of the measure. For instance, some instruments provide prescriptions for leadership development by comparing ratings of “how often” the manager does a particular thing to an “ideal amount” that is estimated using a statistical formula. Using other instruments, respondents rate how often the manager engages in a number of specific behaviors, indicating whether the manager should do more, less or the same amount of each of several sets of behaviors — not each specific behavior. See, for example, J.B. Leslie and J.W. Fleenor, “Feedback to Managers: A Review and Comparison of Multi-Rater Instruments for Management Development” (Greensboro, North Carolina: Center for Creative Leadership, 1998).

2. Research on derailment has shown that the strengths that propel managers up the corporate ladder can become liabilities. See W.M. McCall and M.M. Lombardo, “Off the Track: Why and How Successful Executives Get Derailed” (Greensboro, North Carolina: Center for Creative Leadership, 1983); and M.M. Lombardo and C. McCauley, “The Dynamics of Management Derailment” (Greensboro, North Carolina: Center for Creative Leadership, 1988).

3. The dualism inherent in life and leadership has long been observed. In the 6th century B.C., Pythagoras assembled a much studied table of opposites. (See, for example, K.S. Guthrie, ed., “The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library,” Grand Rapids, Michigan: Phanes Press, 1987). The contemporary field of leadership has seen many two-sided models. Consider, for example, Blake and Mouton’s “managerial grid” with its two axes, i.e., concern for production and concern for people; R.R. Blake and J.S. Mouton, “The Managerial Grid” (San Francisco: Gulf Professional Publishing Co., 1994). Or Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y; D. McGregor and W.G. Bennis, “The Human Side of Enterprise: 25th Anniversary Printing” (New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 1985). Or Robert Quinn’s competing managerial values, results and relationships, stability and change; R.E. Quinn, “Beyond Rational Management: Mastering the Paradoxes and Competing Demands of High Performance” (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991).

4. For a comprehensive review of the many variations on this theme, see B.M. Bass, “Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications,” 3rd ed. (New York: Free Press, 1990), 415–543.

5.Leslie and Fleenor, “Feedback to Managers.”

6. F. Shipper, “Mastery and Frequency of Managerial Behaviors Relative to Sub-Unit Effectiveness,” Human Relations 44, no. 4 (1991): 371–388; and F. Shipper and C.S. White, “Mastery, Frequency and Interaction of Managerial Behaviors Relative to Subunit Effectiveness,” Human Relations 52, no. 1 (1999): 49–66.

7. Aristotle, “Vol. XIX. Nicomachean Ethics,” translated by H. Rackham (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1926).

8.The data summarized here is presented in greater detail in R.E. Kaplan and R.B. Kaiser, “Rethinking a Classic Distinction in Leadership: Implications for the Assessment and Development of Executives,” Consulting Psychology Journal: Research and Practice 55, no. 1 (2003): 15–25; and R.B. Kaiser and R.E. Kaplan, “Leadership Versatility Index: User’s Guide” (Greensboro, North Carolina: Kaplan DeVries Inc., 2002).

9. Prior studies of this basic distinction, by whatever name, have shown either a negligible or, most often, a sizable positive correlation between the assertive, task-oriented side and the participative, people-oriented side of leadership. We suspect the reason is that, to date, researchers have not directly measured overdoing. See Bass, “Handbook of Leadership” (chap. 24), for a narrative review. For a quantitative review of more than 200 primary studies that examined the correlations between these two dimensions of leader behavior, refer to R.F. Piccolo, T.A. Judge and R. Ilies, “The Ohio State Studies: Consideration and Initiating Structure Revisited” (presentation at the 17th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Orlando, Florida, April 11–13, 2003). Both reviews concluded that a strong and positive relationship exists between the two, and both acknowledge that this is inconsistent with how the two dimensions are conceptualized.

10. We fully recognize that so-called “contingency theorists” have considered the idea of versatility since the 1960s. These theorists argued that the most effective leadership behavior depended on circumstantial factors. “Situational leadership theory” has been the most popular of these models, most recently articulated in P. Hersey, K.H. Blanchard and D.E. Johnson, “Management of Organizational Behavior,” 8th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2000). During that same period, Victor Vroom presented a decision-making tree to help managers determine how much to involve others in a decision on the basis of situational factors like the importance of decision quality, acceptance, speed and so on; see V.H. Vroom and P.W. Yetton, “Leadership and Decision-Making” (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1973). A contingency theory relevant to the strategic/operational distinction has not yet been put forth, suggesting that social scientists are more interested in the how of leadership than the what.

11. The three nonversatile patterns — lopsided toward forceful, lopsided toward enabling, and disengaged — correspond to the three basic leadership styles identified in Kurt Lewin’s seminal research from the 1930s — authoritarian, democratic and laissez-faire; see K. Lewin, R. Lippitt and R.K. White, “Patterns of Aggressive Behavior in Experimentally Created Social Climates,” Journal of Social Psychology 10 (1939): 271–301. These patterns also correspond to the three counterproductive interpersonal orientations that Karen Horney, the psychoanalytic theorist, formulated. What she called “moving against others” corresponds roughly to forceful, “moving toward others” to enabling and “moving away from others” to disengaged; see K. Horney, “Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis” (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003).

12. For a recent description of the changes in perspective and values required when advancing upward in the management hierarchy, see R. Charan, S. Drotter and J. Noel, “The Leadership Pipeline: How To Build the Leadership-Powered Company” (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000).

13. R.E. Kaplan and R.B. Kaiser, “The Turbulence Within: How Sensitivities Throw Off Performance in Executives,” in “Leading in Turbulent Times,” eds. R.J. Burke and C.L. Cooper (Oxford: Blackwell, in press).

14. Overly simplistic worldviews also account for lopsided leadership. Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y, for instance, are relevant to imbalance on the forceful/enabling duality. Theory X managers, who believe that people are motivated to do just enough to get by and are basically lazy, tend to be too forceful and do not enable enough. Believing that people are basically motivated to work hard and will do so if given the right conditions, Theory Y managers are inclined to be too enabling and not forceful enough. We suspect that versatile leaders see the grain of truth in both positions. See McGregor and Bennis, “The Human Side of Enterprise.”

15. R.E. Kaplan, “Internalizing Strengths: An Overlooked Way of Overcoming Weaknesses in Managers” (Greensboro, North Carolina: Center for Creative Leadership, 1999); and R.E. Kaplan, “Know Your Strengths,” Harvard Business Review 80 (March 2002): 20–21.

16. S.J. Blatt, “The Destructiveness of Perfectionism: Implications for the Treatment of Depression,” American Psychologist 50, no. 12 (1995): 1003–1020.

17. Kaplan and Kaiser, “Rethinking a Classic Distinction in Leadership.”

18. Kaplan, “Know Your Strengths,” and Kaplan, “Internalizing Strengths.”

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