Great leaders are ambidextrous. Are you?

By Melvin Greer, Managing Director, Greer Institute for Leadership and Innovation

There are many important characteristics of great leaders. Team players, good listeners and visionary are clear hallmarks. But being ambidextrous is required now more than ever. Ambidextrous leadership is a balanced approach where flexible leadership behaviors that lead to better business outcomes are the rule.  Ambidexterity is the ability to engage in innovation (exploration) and operation (exploitation) equally well. But these are two very different yet complementary leadership behaviors.

  • Exploitation: Reducing variance, adherence to rules, alignment and risk avoidance  
  • Exploration: Increasing variance, experimentation and failure, value alternatives and risk taking

And why is ambidextrous leadership required now more than ever? Leadership is in crises, and leaders are facing an increasing set of complex issues. This crisis manifests itself in a lack of employee engagement and retention along with lower market share and business performance. According to 2013 Ketchum Leadership study, there is an unambiguous crisis of confidence in leaders.According to the survey, just 24 percent of people around the world believe leaders overall are providing effective leadership. Poor leadership directly hits sales, and in 2012, 60 percent of people *** or bought less from a company due to poor leadership behavior. This assessment indicates that we are experiencing an innovation gap where today’s leaders have neglected leadership behavior that fosters innovation in favor of operational performance.

What makes ambidextrous leadership hard is that innovation is a complex and non-linear activity. There is a dynamic life cycle and pace of innovation, combined with situational variability. This requires leaders to develop temporal flexibility — the ability to know when to do what for maximum business impact. Given the focus on innovation, today’s leaders are encouraged to develop a 21st century leadership model, which emphasizes ambidextrous leadership.

So what does it take to become an ambidextrous leader? Here are some key first steps:

  1. Develop an ability to harness disruptive innovations. I’ve identified four disruptive innovations that are impacting leaders and leadership. IT knowledge has traditionally been confined to the IT department, but not anymore. Today, leaders should be able to read a P&L or interpret and operate a balance sheet; they should be able to understand how technology will impact the business strategy of their organization.
  2. Drive innovation via workforce and talent. Innovative leadership requires systematic innovation; a tight linkage to the development of a strong workforce and the development of future leaders — students — via a robust science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) pipeline.

The book, 21st Century Leadership, drills down to illuminate what makes leaders so good at innovation and talent, and describes how to move an innovation strategy from chasing shiny objects to a powerful, sustainable cultural change and create a magnet for great talent. The goal is to mature new leaders and inspire future innovators. This is how we, as leaders, turn this disruption from a challenge into an opportunity for business growth via innovation.

By taking these steps, we can close the innovation gap and avoid leadership behavior that atrophies innovation in favor of operational performance. We can truly have ambidexterity leadership and engage in innovation and operational activities equally well.

The Boston Consulting Group, in its top 20 most innovative companies for 2014, listed firms like Samsung, Tesla Motors, Dell and Intel. These companies are working to drive operational performance and innovation to their clients’ benefit.

This post was written as part of the Dell Content Partners program, which provides news and analysis on technology, business and gadget-geek culture. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent Dell’s positions or strategies.

About the Author: Power More