Modern leaders are facing two broad challenges in the world today. One is the requirement to balance contradictory demands, such as doing more with less. The other challenge is to keep up with the pace of “disruptive change” which pressures organizations to adapt due to speeding up these demands. In order to handle these challenges, leaders must be versatile. That is, they need the ability to cope with a variety of changes to resolve competing priorities. Versatility in leadership leads to more engaged employees and higher-performing teams, and subsequently, their business units are more adaptable and innovative.
Based on research conducted by his team, Robert B. Kaiser defines versatility as the capacity to read and respond to change with a wide repertoire of complementary skills and behaviors. Being able to read change is distinct from being able to respond to it, in part because the broad skill set needed to accomplish the latter takes a conscious effort that often pushes leaders out of their comfort zones.
Kaiser’s team discovered that most leaders tend to favor leading in ways that are based on the strengths that come naturally to them. This bias, as a result, turns their strengths into weaknesses: in their research, they found that leaders are five times more likely to use behaviors related to their strengths when other behaviors would be more effective. The essential question, then, is how do you develop versatility? Leadership experts suggest taking a three-pronged approach.
First, learn from a variety of different and challenging experiences to broaden your perspective and skills. Diverse work experiences and career paths, in tandem with agile learning abilities, will set you up for success in this regard. Compare your current skills and experiences to those needed in the jobs you aspire to and find roles that allow you to grow into them.
The second component of this approach is ongoing feedback and development. Versatility applies to your ability to change your behavior in response to constructive feedback in addition to your ability to respond to change. A good question to ask comes from the recommendation by the late Peter Drucker: “What should I stop, start, and continue doing to be more effective?”
The third strategy is personal development, which means becoming a more well-rounded person. To do this, you will need to keep your mind open to opposing skills and behaviors that may not necessarily align with your strengths. Versatile leaders tend to step beyond what is comfortable to them. Rather than just honing in on your strengths, taking what some may consider a rigid and narrow approach, think about experimenting with and learning from opposing perspectives.