Leadership ambidexterity or schizophrenia?
Conflicts and tensions in creating value today versus tomorrow
We read a lot about the need to develop “ambidextrous leaders”. That almost superhuman breed of person who can focus and deliver on all of today’s short term operational KPI’s whilst at the same time are innovative, dynamic, long term strategic thinkers and visionaries, creating the business of tomorrow. Ambidexterity is certainly one way of describing it but perhaps schizophrenic is another.
I wonder if we simply demand too much of our leaders in asking them to bounce between the two worlds of today and tomorrow. In doing so I see organisations continually falling short on both the operational as well as transformational goals they pursue. Certainly there is a significant and growing body of research along with circumstantial and anecdotal evidence pointing towards increasing levels of work related stress, anxiety, burnout and lack of engagement. The sum of which strongly suggests all is not well.
The aim of this paper is to highlight the fundamental differences, tensions and tradeoffs between leading and managing for today verses tomorrow. In doing so I hope to shine a light on why the impact of many executive development and business transformation interventions have a short half life and what companies need to think about as they gear up to deal with the hyper pace of change that is ever present.
Don’t take my word for it
At the end of delivering a leadership programme it’s wonderful to hear delegates say how enjoyable and insightful the experience had been. However, that is usually followed by; “but its back to the grind tomorrow and it’s going to be so difficult to find the time and space to implement our new insights.” This reaction could well be a damning reflection on my inability to design and deliver impactful learning experiences or it could be a sign of the pressure and tensions facing today’s executives. It’s perhaps both, but evidence (and my ego) suggests it’s primarily the latter.
Figure 1 is an excerpt from a genuine role profile of a senior executive within a well known European based multi-national corporation. The words are those from the original document with minor editing to align them in a grid format to highlight possible conflicts, tensions and contradictions.
On the face of it the individual profile challenges and behavioural characteristics seem perfectly reasonable, and in many ways they are. My argument is not with the individual profile requirements but with the way they are bundled into one role profile. For example;
- How well does tolerating failure sit with stretch targets?
- How well does taking smart risks sit with leaner ways of working?
- How well does challenge the status quo sit with operational excellence?
- How well does accelerate change sit with outperform expectation?
In their book; “Uncommon sense and common nonsense”, Jules Goddard and Tony Eccles share what I believe is one of the most helpful and powerful models (figure 2) of the two basic worlds senior executives inhabit to greater or lesser degrees – the worlds of today and tomorrow.
These two complimentary and connected worlds describe the fundamental attributes of what it takes to run a business efficiently but also deal with the uncertainly and turbulence that lies ahead. Metaphorically you could think of the well oiled machine on the left and the “out of the box” model for the right. Therein lies the essence of some fundamental differences which many executives in many organisations are finding increasingly hard, if not impossible, to reconcile.
In my experience the majority of leadership development programmes have more or less the same aims. Organisations want leaders to help them transform, be more agile, more innovative, more adaptable, more collaborative, more inspiring and strategically differentiated. All of the characteristics the yellow change and innovation engine is designed to achieve. However, when I use this model to ask programme delegates; “Where do you spend most of your time on a day to day, week by week or month by month basis”? The answer tends to be the same no matter what the industry, no matter what the level of seniority – “We try hard to find the time to innovate and change but constantly get sucked back into business as usual.” In effect the priorities and behavioural triggers of today regularly over-ride those of tomorrow. To a degree this is understandable but it means leaders frequently find themselves in a vicious “no win” circle and both they as well as the business fall short on their overall aims.
Causes of tension and trade offs
In today’s constantly changing world focusing on just delivering value today is simply not good enough, history shows you will get outmanoeuvred and out thought by those competing for your space sooner or later. As a manager and leader your ability to navigate “tides of change” and thrive over the long term depends on a different set of characteristics and skills to those required in the achievement of more immediate goals.
To help understand why more and more executives are inclined to feel increasingly “schizophrenic” rather than gallantly ambidextrous it is important to appreciate the fundamental differences in behaviour, the nature of the task and the way you organise between these two separate but interconnected worlds. Unfortunately many organisations tend to underestimate how profound these differences are.
Nature of the challenge and leadership
In most cases there are known solutions to the challenges faced when dealing with “business today” such as operational improvements and process standardisation. It then becomes a conversation around best practice and the implementation of the known solution around standard processes. In the case of looking towards tomorrow the nature of the problems tends to be much more ambiguous and complex with little, if any, knowledge of what the solution looks like. The implications for style of leadership are profound. On the one hand leaders can be quite prescriptive and almost dictatorial when implementing something that is known. On the other, they need to be more collaborative, trusting and facilitative to create the environment for creative practices and ideas to flourish in the search for innovative ideas to complex problems. This is sometimes referred to as technical v adaptive leadership. To ask leaders to be both and display these different behaviours in one role is a tall ask of anyone. Discrete roles with role rotation to dedicated teams might be a more effective solution.
Nature of innovation
The innovation challenge for business as usual tends to be much more incremental than looking at tomorrow. Asking difficult questions, pushing back on perceived wisdom, constructing new hypothesis and testing ideas through experimentation is both a highly skilled, disciplined and complex task requiring slack in the system, space, time and resources for discovery and play. These are not characteristics and behaviours that are usually tolerated in a target driven, lean business model focused on today. Structuring breakthrough innovations tend to come about by having a diverse team of skilled, dedicated well resourced practitioners and that is not usually afforded to leaders who also have to focus and be aligned on day to day operational objectives and KPI’s.
This is usually one of the ultimate causes of conflict for the ambidextrous leader. The business of today generates revenue and in the short to medium term the activities that are capable of creating the business of tomorrow consume revenue. It takes time for new propositions, new strategies and new ways of working to be tested and rolled out. A lot of breakthrough innovation initiatives tend to have their budgets cut back in difficult trading conditions and their justification undermined for the sake of focusing on business today. This immediately compromises leaders who have this duality of purpose and sucks them back into the prevailing organisational culture and norms.
Achieving today’s targets is dominated by behaviours such as focus, alignment, compliance and efficiency. The culture tends to be one of implementing against clear guidelines and rules with little tolerance or scope for ideas that go against the grain of prevailing wisdom. The learning logic is in effect a single loop process and acceptance of known strategies and assumptions. The opposite is the case when it comes to leading a group dedicated to challenge new ideas and experiments. The learning logic is double loop where most, if not all, prevailing wisdom and assumptions are overturned for new ones and underlying assumptions about markets, employees and customers may well be fundamentally different. To challenge underlying assumptions one minute then be asked to unthinkingly implement a corporate standard approach the next requires saintly skills and can be a cause of much soul searching for many leaders.
Nature of Control
A prevailing paradigm of leadership and management is that it has to be in control. Not being in control is therefore a sign of weakness. Delivering value today for most organisations is the beautifully designed blue control loop (figure 2) measuring achievement against target or budget with appropriate rewards or punishments for varying levels of achievement. The leadership style is underpinned by previous experience in similar situations and the implementation of known solutions. Authoritative, assertive and dominant leaders tend to be very successful in such environments however the opposite needs to be the case for success in a world dominated by creativity, innovation, ambiguity, learning and experiments. Control in such circumstances can be seen as “less is more”. Letting people have freedom and autonomy, the ability to make decisions and the space to make mistakes. Leadership control is a function of the individual’s style or character and not their rank or title. Many leaders’ today flounder outside the authority given by their office.
I’ll end where I started – we ask a lot of our leaders today, perhaps too much. The leadership style, the people skills, the capacity to control and the operating context are fundamentally different between leading today verses leading tomorrow. I believe it is unhelpful to ask leaders to seamlessly bounce between the two worlds and enjoy great success in both. It is time to acknowledge that being successful is a function of both circles of activity and a dedicated approach to both, honing the necessary skills, is more effective and ultimately more successful and rewarding.
Leadership development programmes have a role to play in highlighting these differences and making aspiring leaders aware of the conflicts and sometimes irreconcilable tensions they will face. Mature leaders know this because they have faced and experienced them. For them the challenge is to decide which world they are best suited thus enabling them and the overall organisation to flourish. Aspiring leaders should be nurtured, spending dedicated time in both worlds to prime future success but also limit any “schizophrenic” consequences.
If you are interested to find out how Accelerance is helping an organisation to address its adaptive leadership challenges click here: https://accelerance.co/case-studies/leadership-series-2/