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Which Type of Leader Has Outperformed During the Pandemic?

And do you have what’s needed to succeed long-term?

The past 12 months have been some of the most challenging of their careers for leaders.  For many, if not most, it’s been learning by doing, without a playbook.
So which leaders have been the most successful?  My colleague Rob Kaiser has a few answers.

In recent research, he finds that during the pandemic, Versatile leaders were viewed as significantly more effective than non-Versatile ones.  Moreover, “the more flexible and well-rounded leaders excelled at guiding their teams through the extraordinary upheaval, whereas the more limited leaders were overwhelmed by it.”

So what do we mean by Versatility and what are the implications for leaders?

First, Kaiser defines Versatility as “the ability to read and respond to change with a wide repertoire of complementary perspectives and behaviors.” 
Note that it involves both reading and responding to change.  According to Kaiser, “[r]eading change involves cognitive skills for scanning the environment and making sense of what’s happening.  Responding involves behavioral skills for taking effective action in light of that interpretation.”

Using a patented 360-feedback assessment, the Leadership Versatility Index, Kaiser assessed leaders’ flexibility in both how they lead and what they focus on when they lead.  “How” they lead concerns Forceful and Enabling interpersonal behaviors.  “What” they lead concerns behaviors for addressing Strategic and Operational imperatives.

According to the research, between 1996 and 2002, Versatility accounted for 35% of a leader’s effectiveness as assessed by their co-workers.  By 2019 that had increased to 50%.  And by the spring of 2020 it nearly doubled to 62%. 

However, research shows that fewer than 1 in 10 leaders are truly Versatile.

So what does this mean for you and your team?  Here are three fundamental conclusions:

  1. Relying on your strengths is a risky strategy.  As demonstrated by COVID-19, the context in which you lead can easily and suddenly change.  And that will certainly happen with your next promotion.  So don’t leave yourself exposed.  Continue to learn.  Shore up your vulnerabilities and weaknesses.  Continue do develop your skills and your leadership.
  2. Plan for change.  Note I didn’t say “predict” change.  Leaders who today are more or less the same leader they were a year ago should be uncomfortable and concerned.  Those who stagnate will be left behind.
  3. Challenge your team to grow.  Reward and develop those leaders open to building new skills so they can flex to the changing contexts in which they will ultimately have to lead.

And you can find more information about the Leadership Versatility Index here.