Pivot like a pro

Effective leadership requires versatility. UB School of Management expert Tim Maynes digs into the research and explains how you can become more adaptable as a leader.

A manager leads her team in a meeting.

By Timothy Maynes

Timothy Maynes
Timothy Maynes

To be optimally effective, business leaders must have the versatility to respond appropriately (or at least not inappropriately) to a wide variety of challenges.

Many trends are driving this need for leaders to be more adaptive. For example, increased employee mobility means that working relationships between leaders and followers tend to be shorter in duration. Leaders face pressure to innovate as new competitors and technologies enter the market, and changing societal values are altering the importance that many people place on work within their lives.

In addition, the shift toward flatter organizational structures — and away from command-and-control hierarchies — places new demands on today’s managers, who must overcome challenges with decentralized decision-making and shared authority. As Linda A. Hill writes in Harvard Business Review, leaders “are enmeshed in a web of relationships — not only with subordinates, but also with bosses, peers and others inside and outside the organization, all of whom make relentless and often conflicting demands on them.”

Consider the following scenarios, all of which require leaders to respond with versatility:

  • You must closely monitor the performance of a direct report who is struggling, but allow autonomy and choice in how tasks are completed for another team member.
  • You may need to hold one employee accountable to high performance expectations, but respond with empathy and understanding for another employee who is failing or underperforming.
  • You decide to step in and provide operational direction in one moment, but step back and articulate a compelling overarching vision at another time.

It’s easy to say that leaders must adapt their leadership to the situation, but it’s challenging to do it well. In one study on CEO failure, Jay A. Conger discovered that “many executives have an extremely difficult time recognizing that a new leadership orientation is required upon promotion to the CEO role. They persist instead in their prior orientation, which ultimately causes the downfall of a significant number of CEOs.” In other words, these executives failed to develop the versatility that would enable them to adapt to their new role effectively.

So, what can you do to become a more versatile leader? Research suggests that developing skills in two closely related areas is particularly important.

Embrace complexity

Many leaders crave simplicity, but need to embrace complexity. The ability to simplify complexity is, of course, a core competency for leaders, especially for those in senior leadership positions. To solve business challenges, you must be able to see through complexity to the underlying themes, elements and root causes of those challenges.

The issue, however, is that it can be tempting to rely on oversimplified rules of thumb and apply them in a wide variety of situations. To hone the ability to see and understand complexity, you should solicit input from trusted mentors on factors to consider when presented with a leadership challenge, even if it seems to fit preconceptions about the best way to respond.

Push your boundaries

Second, many leaders like routines, but need to get out of their comfort zone. It’s tiring and time consuming to always think about what the best leadership response is in a given situation. It is human nature to fall into a few well-worn patterns that have worked in the past.

But to develop adaptive leadership capabilities, you must push yourself to think about old situations with fresh eyes, and to find situations where your old intuitions may not be relevant or useful.

Given the complexity of today’s leadership challenges, adaptive leadership is becoming increasingly important. When describing the need for leadership versatility, a friend of mine uses a golf analogy. Golfers select the club they will use in any given situation based on the specific attributes of the circumstance — a putter for the green, a driver for the fairway, a wedge for the sand trap, and so on.

The same is true of effective leaders — you must develop an understanding of the best responses for a variety of situations, and adjust your leadership style to meet the demands of the moment.

The article was first published as part of 52 Weeks of Leadership, a program hosted by the University at Buffalo School of Management’s Center for Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness.

Timothy Maynes, PhD, is associate professor of organization and human resources in the University at Buffalo School of Management. In his research, Maynes examines leader behaviors that encourage or discourage employee voice, creativity and proactivity, and the impact each has on organizational and employee effectiveness.

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