Ambidextrous leadership

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind and still retain the ability to function.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald

In other articles we have made the case that, in an age of disruption, leaders and organisations need to become ambidextrous – balancing Directional Leadership with Connected Intelligence. In the first half of this article, we will explore the challenges that balancing these polarities can cause for leaders. In the back half we’ll share the leadership characteristics need to both step up to Connected Intelligence and manage this balance.

At the outset, it is important to recognise that leaders of teams and groups need to play two distinct roles. Firstly, as the group’s leader they are the ‘host’ of the Connected Intelligence meeting. Whether they have the depth of facilitation skills to run the meeting themselves or have chosen to secure external support for this instead, the meeting is still seen as theirs by their people. This means that they are responsible for creating a setting where people feel their voices will be heard, and where it is safe to speak truth to power. The importance of this cannot be exaggerated, since disruptive change often involves double-loop learning – challenging the organisation’s and the group’s underlying strategies and ways of operating. Moreover, it often involves surfacing and working productively with conflict. All of this can elicit strong reactions and emotions on the part of both leader and group members. The leader of the team or group therefore plays a vital role in creating a safe space where both deep inquiry and authentic advocacy become possible, even if the temperature is heated.

Ambidextrous leaders need to alternate judiciously between Directional Leadership and Connected Intelligence, depending upon the complexity of the challenge. This sets up a thorny dilemma related to power for group leaders. On the one hand they need to appear strong and in control, while on the other they need to admit the existence of problems for which they have no easy answer. They need to provide strong advocacy and direction, while also encouraging active and open challenge to their own views. Whilst they may experience fear and anxiety around the situation themselves, they also need to inspire group members to manage and overcome their own anxieties. Each of these challenges require leaders to embrace a paradox, by operating in ways which appear contradictory.

The dilemmas of power described above creates significant challenges for group members as well. For example, a team member may be in a series of operational meetings with their boss on a Monday, where the leader plays a directive role – chairing discussion, strongly advocating positions and making unilateral decisions when needed. On the Tuesday, they now find themselves in a team offsite where the leader is inviting them to give honest feedback on the strategy, the team and even the leader themselves. From the outset the leader needs to be highly effective in establishing Psychological Safety, or they will appear contradictory and even inauthentic to the group. If this happens, group members end up finding themselves trapped in a double-bind – either they speak up and face potential consequences for doing so, or they behave inauthentically by remaining silent.

The sad fact in organisational life today is that all too often we don’t feel safe to say what we really think and feel, or we end up providing distorted feedback to each other. We all know that this is what’s going on, we know that the others know, and we all know that this is something we don’t discuss. We end up playing complex games with each other and the organisation, games that camouflage the real rational and relational issues that are keeping the business stuck. In our work with leadership teams we are constantly surprised by the amount of hidden information we uncover when we conduct confidential one-to-ones with the team, at the beginning of a project. The key issue here is that the thoughts and feelings not being shared are usually the very issues the group needs to surface and discuss, in order to be able to break through their shared transformation challenge.

The head, heart and hand of Connected Intelligence

So, how do we avoid becoming ensnared on the horns of this dilemma? How we do learn to embrace the paradoxes described above, instead of becoming paralysed or remaining fixed at one of the polarities? How do we develop the capability and fluidity needed to operate and transition between leader as “hero” and leader as “host”? Resolving this challenge requires a step-change in mental and emotional complexity, and this means learning a new set of cognitive, relational and action-oriented capabilities. At Living Systems, we call this the head, heart and hand of Connected Intelligence.

From a cognitive point of view, leaders need to develop systemic awareness – broadening their view of the organisation and learning to take a holistic perspective They must understand the interconnectedness between organisational, group and personal dynamics, observing the interplay in real time between these three sets of forces. They must be capable of double-loop learning and reflective inquiry – surfacing and testing the hidden assumptions that determine how they, the group and the organisation are behaving. All of this means developing the capacity for metacognition – the ability to be aware of, think about and regulate one’s own thoughts and impulses.

From a relational point of view, leaders need to effect a step-change in their emotional intelligence and interpersonal effectiveness. Surfacing “elephants in the room” or challenging the organisational orthodoxy can elicit strong feelings and reactions in individuals. This requires an internal awareness of emotions as they arise, together with the ability to self- regulate in real time. Furthermore, when interfaces between functions and levels break down, we tend to project onto, and build narratives about other groups and individuals within the organisation. This has a derailing and destructive effect upon business performance and the organisational climate. To rebuild connection, leaders need to be able to undo these projections – and this requires deep empathy and interpersonal effectiveness.

Thirdly, leaders need to be able to enable collective action and develop group agility. This means being able to work effectively with group process in the moment, in response to unforeseen events as they occur. Whereas Directional Leadership meetings are characterised by tightly scoped and timed agendas which are followed rigorously, Connected Intelligence meetings operate to the principle of what our colleague Jenny Mackewn calls “notional design and planned emergence”. Groups go into a Connected Intelligence meeting with a clear agenda – but also with the expectation that this agenda will be continuously adapted and refined throughout the event, in response to what is emerging within the group. The role of the leader here is not to take unilateral decisions around the agenda, but instead to enable and facilitate collective decision making by the group as a whole.

Balancing horizontal with vertical development

Let’s be honest. Reading the list of almost superhuman attributes described above, who wouldn’t be at least a little bit daunted? Where to start? The good news is that it is a journey that can be taken a step at a time; it doesn’t need to be tackled all at once. This journey towards greater mental and emotional complexity is called vertical development and is distinct from horizontal development (e.g. knowledge transfer and skills development). Whereas traditional horizontal development focuses on what you know, vertical development focuses on how you know. It involves a leader becoming increasingly aware of how they think, feel, and make sense of the world around them. Both are needed, but the first is incremental and the second is transformational. It’s a bit like either updating just the software on your computer or completely changing the hardware itself. Vertical learning broadens a leader’s view and permanently heightens their awareness. It enables them to see things from multiple perspectives, cope with heightened ambiguity and react to complex situations in a more agile manner.

An age of disruption, then, demands a different kind of leadership. What got us here won’t necessarily get us there. In a time of increasing global crisis, we need leaders that have a clear sense of purpose and their work in the world – and who are committed to the lifelong journey of vertical development needed to achieve this. In a time of greater volatility and uncertainty we need leaders that are present and open to the world around them, who are comfortable with ambiguity and not knowing. In a time of increasing complexity, we need leaders that have the cognitive, relational and action-oriented capabilities needed to address complex transformation. Only by rising to these vertical development challenges as leaders will we be able to meet an increasingly unpredictable future with confident uncertainty. 

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