By Nikki Brown and Dr. Marianne de Pierres

Leadership today is exacting. Whichever management book or article you read, the skill sets required to succeed, seem endless. Mantles such as service, adaptive, agile, transformational, horizontal, regenerative, creative, and vertical leadership are just a few of an exhausting list, each bringing with them attributes that sometimes overlap, but mostly require something different from us.

Being able to distil the essence of these important subsets of leadership – so that we can exercise the right skills, at the right time – is the leadership alchemy of our age. We are now expected to be versatile enough to flex, pivot, cut through, and reframe, all while remaining sensitive, self-aware, and in service of others. But how do we do this without becoming burned out or having our leadership potency diluted by being spread too thin? And does being versatile, mean we are also operating from a place of wisdom?

What is Versatile Leadership?

Versatility is seen as the peak capability or meta competency for leading in a VUCA world. It is the ability to read and respond to change with a wide repertoire of complementary skills and behaviours. 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, organisations sometimes need leaders to look to their future strategic direction and at other times to focus on day-to-day operations and execution.

Knowing ourselves, our values, and our ambitions is the foundation for versatile leadership. Having deep levels of self-knowledge and awareness enables us not only to see ourselves as we are today, but to consider the long-term impact of the actions we are taking. If we want our day-to-day actions to be aligned with our values, we need to lead with mindful versatility that is enabled by self-awareness.

This will likely include being able to:

  • embrace polarity, so that we can balance tensions in leadership and strategy
  • dive deep into the assumptions, beliefs, and inner voices that sit beneath these behaviours and hold us in stasis, and reframe these in ways that align with core values and empower leadership growth

But maintaining this versatility is a challenge. According to recent research, only 9% of leaders can be called versatile – meaning they are able to be forceful, enabling, strategic, and operational in equal part and on-demand. Generally speaking, though, leaders are much stronger in one area than the others.

The stretch needed to become more versatile has also opened a conversation about the emotional labour required to be an effective leader. It is recognition that leaders also need to be sustained if they are to perform optimally.

Traditionally, leaders have had to ignore their emotions, values, and beliefs to have the appropriate influence over an individual or a group at work. This causes considerable internal distress, which until now has largely been seen as part of the job description. But as we begin to have a more purpose-aligned and people-centred focus in business, awareness has grown around the needs of leaders as well as teams.

The kind of support they we could offer leaders might include:

  • prioritising leadership health and wellbeing programs
  • prioritising leadership training around managing our emotions
  • establishing peer support groups
  • learning how to practice self-compassion
What Makes a Wise Leader?

But does this reach for versatility also make us wise leaders? Or as we stretch in breadth, do we lose our depth?

Some believe that wise leaders – like versatile leaders – are defined by their ability to assess and select what is needed in the moment and by having an array of resources to draw upon. Others would say wise leadership means understanding that our perceptions are clouded by inherent bias, and that understanding context is the key ingredient to decision making. Without contextual perspective, we can suffer from wisdom deficiency syndrome (WSD), which shows up as a belief in our own infallibility or “rightness.” This is generally characterised by an obsession with knowledge acquisition and an inclination to ignore our intuition and humanity.

The antidote to WSD is regular self-reflection, which allows the wisdom development process to flourish. Yet, self-reflection requires time and space, a scarce commodity in the versatile leader’s day to day.  It calls for us to intentionally prioritise self-reflection as an important factor in leadership growth and success.

From there we can strengthen our capacity to hold the many leadership paradoxes, such as:

  • Integrity – self-confidence and humility
  • Competence – exploitation and exploration
  • Safeguarding – safety and daring
  • Empathy – compassion and distance
Bridging for the Better

Versatile leaders have the attributes to lead in the face of polarities, ambiguities, and complexities, and this requires many of the same qualities that make a wise leader. The bridge between one and the other, though, lies in the framing of intent.

Versatile leaders seek to be effective through their array of robust capabilities and their resourcefulness. Wise leaders may be versatile, but they also look through the lens of compassionate stewardship at how their leadership skills can best serve the greater good.

As we strive to be more versatile in our day to day, it might pay to also keep in touch with our deep-seated intent.

Need More Help?

Keen to find out more about how to embrace the best that versatile and wise leadership have to offer?  Performance Frontiers help guide leaders and organisations to embrace the dualities, polarities and paradoxes as part of the future of work. Speak to Nikki today about how we can partner with you to create a leadership blueprint for your organisation that thrives in the face of uncertainty.

While every effort has been made to provide valuable, useful information in this publication, this organisation and any related suppliers or associated companies accept no responsibility or any form of liability from reliance upon or use of its contents. Any suggestions should be considered carefully within your own particular circumstances, as they are intended as general information only.

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