Versatile Leadership: How To Get Out Of A Workplace Rut

What makes a good leader great? Although there are about as many answers as there are leaders, one of the key elements has to be versatility. If you don’t have the ability to approach different problems in different ways, you’re at a distinct disadvantage in today’s business environment.

If all you have under your belt is a one-dimensional methodology to tackle any challenge, you lack the multifaceted tactics necessary to be the type of manager who can inspire colleagues in this era of multicultural, multigenerational businesses in multiple time zones. It’s increasingly important to learn how to most effectively approach a problem, an employee or a business strategy.

In his Harvard Business Review article “The Best Leaders Are Versatile Ones” (registration required), Robert B. Kaiser writes, “It is not an overstatement to say that versatility is the most important component of leading effectively today. Versatile leaders have more engaged employees and higher performing teams.”

Because we now work in a global community, it’s necessary to effectively interact with people of diverse backgrounds and skill levels. This requires a more well-rounded approach to problems and solutions. A good place to start is by conducting a personal inventory of your current abilities and talents.

No matter what methodology you use to accomplish this (there are multiple personal inventory systems and tests on the market), the important things to discover are:

• What is lacking in your management toolbox?

• What executive tools do you possess and wield with expertise?

You can make this process as simple as a list on paper. If you want a very clear and truthful picture, include the opinions of those people you know and respect. Ask them to give you an accurate description of behaviors and actions in various business scenarios. You should begin to see a pattern of where you need to develop to become a more versatile leader.

You may have had success in the past by being authoritative and have gotten into the habit of using this style to the exclusion of others that may be better suited to the situation or employee. Relying on a single tactic won’t serve you well in the long run. Bob Kaplan and Rob Kaiser explain this tendency in their book The Versatile Leader: “A chief reason why leaders overuse their strengths is that they underestimate them. Often their gauge is off: they think they’re only going 55 miles per hour when in fact they’re breaking the speed limit.”

To become more adaptable to challenges that arise, you’ll have to put in some effort and self-reflection. If you’ve had the opportunity to work in multiple companies, various departments and at different levels in the corporate structure, you most likely have a leg up on your peers. Working in diverse backgrounds teaches you to use the approach that fits each specific need.

For example, acting overly assertive in a situation with an employee who values cooperation and consensus will rarely result in a positive interaction with that person. Conversely, going out of your way to be conciliatory in a serious project deadline default with a confrontational associate won’t accomplish anything. In her book Becoming a More Versatile Learner, Maxine A. Dalton explains, “You learn the most if, when facing challenges, you employ a variety of behaviors, or learning tactics. Some managers, although perfectly willing to take on challenging experiences, use only comfortable, tried-and-true tactics, thus severely limiting their ability to learn from these experiences.”

If your ultimate goal is to reduce interpersonal tensions and lessen strained communications, you need to stop relying on your default style. Being flexible can be a real problem for managers unwilling or unable to move out of their comfort zones.

I worked with a group of middle managers in a production facility. They all seemed fairly confident of their abilities to use different management styles under different circumstances, but once we began performing exercises in how each of them behaved in a specific situation, many of them realized (with surprise) that they were simply using the same hammer, even in circumstances that required a screwdriver!

To get out of your linear rut as a manager requires effort on your part. I think the first thing you need to realize is that the skills, perceptions and perspectives of others almost always differ from your own. You have to understand different ways of learning and thinking. Being open and aware during this process will not only make it less painful but will also shorten the learning curve.

Make a commitment to your continuing education. It doesn’t have to involve reading a stack of dry business improvement manuals. Take some educational courses, travel to somewhere you’ve never been, try a new hobby and meet new people with new perspectives.

Pledge to make your personal development and the flexibility to stretch yourself not only professionally but personally a priority. The benefits of becoming more versatile will make you aware of how much more there is for you to learn. In business as well as life, progress is everything. Learn to evolve.

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This article has previously been published on Forbes.

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