Melvin Greer

by Melvin Greer, Managing Director, Greer Institute

Column: Ambidextrous leadership, what is it, and how do leaders develop it?

Published October 06, 2014


COLUMN -- 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 boycotted or bought less from a company due to poor leadership behavior. This assessment indicates that today’s leaders have neglected leadership behavior that fosters innovation in favor of operational performance.

With uncertainty now the new norm and leaders of all kinds remaining under intense, unbroken scrutiny, we are at a critical time in the examination of modern leaders and leadership.

We are experiencing an innovation gap where today’s leaders have neglected leadership behavior that fosters innovation in favor of operational performance. 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

What makes ambidextrous leadership hard is that innovation is a complex and non-linear activity. There is a dynamic lifecycle 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. Traditionally IT knowledge has been confined to the IT department, but not anymore. In the same way any leader 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 leaders understand that systematic innovation requires a tight linkage to the development of a strong workforce and perhaps more importantly, 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.

To learn more, read the full transcript of Melvin's live Q&A with our readers.

Melvin Greer is Founder and Managing Director of the Greer Institute for Leadership and Innovation, focused on research and deployment of a 21st Century Leadership Model™. With over 27 years of global leadership experience, he is a recognized expert in creating innovation culture, organizational change, and leading highly motivated teams. Greer has been awarded the BEYA 2012 Technologist of the Year Award and has been recognized for his outstanding leadership and technical contributions to cloud computing and service-oriented architecture. Greer also serves as Senior Fellow and Chief Strategist Lockheed Martin and Adjunct Faculty at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, College of Engineering. He is also a member of the International Monetary Fund / World Bank, Bretton Woods Committee. Greer is a frequent speaker at conferences and universities and is an accomplished author.



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