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The ambidextrous leader: when to step in and how to step back

What’s best: dictatorial top-down leadership or empowering from the bottom-up?

By Julian Birkinshaw 07 September 2016

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The role of the strong leader is once again in the spotlight.


In the world of politics, Britain has just lived through an exhibition of weak leadership, with David Cameron, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn all failing to follow through on their promises. Meanwhile, the US has the opposite problem – the prospect of a domineering head of state who believes he can do it all himself. We don’t want weak or strong leaders, it seems. In the business world, we are equally confused about the type of leader we want.


On the one hand, we want empowering, inspiring leaders who get things done through others – think of Jim Collins’s ‘Level Five’ leadership, Robert Greenleaf’s ‘Servant Leadership’, or Susan Cain’s emphasis on introverts as leaders.


On the other hand, we have the larger-than-life egos who grace the front page of the Financial Times or Fortune – Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, WPP’s Martin Sorrell, LVMH’s Bernard Arnaut. They call the shots, and they rule their organisations through a combination of charisma, fear and brute force.


How do we square these two perspectives?


Why do management thinkers espouse the virtues of introverted, softly-spoken leaders, when so many of the actual role models in the business world range from boisterous to bully? 


Part of the answer is that we aren’t seeing the whole picture. The leaders we see on the magazine covers are by definition successful and somewhat egotistical. We don’t hear the stories about the leaders who stay out of the limelight.


Another part of the answer is we delude ourselves. We like to think that we want modest and unassuming people to lead us, but the reality is that the larger-than-life figures tend to be the ones we admire. As Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer observes: “We secretly like the confident, overbearing people because they provide us with confidence – emotions are contagious – and also present themselves as winners. We all want to associate with success.”


But perhaps the key point is that we want different types of leaders for different challenges. Winston Churchill was the man to lead in crisis but was voted out as soon as the war was over. It’s the same in business: a company in a crisis needs a turnaround specialist who can act swiftly and decisively. A company transitioning from good to great is better off with one of Jim Collins’s Level Five leaders.


Unfortunately, you cannot always tell what position a company is in. Sure, when a company is in a crisis everyone knows. But the vast majority of firms, in my experience, are in a grey zone between crisis and comfortable: they are doing OK, but facing an array of challenges and the threat of something very disruptive happening. In such cases (financial services, healthcare, education) you don’t know what the scale of change is going to be, and there are risks in overestimating the threat of disruption as much as in underestimating it.


You need an ambidextrous leader


So what is the right type of leadership style for a firm in this situation? You need a balanced leader, equally adept at operating with two different styles. They should be capable of stepping in and taking charge, but also able to step back and let others call the shots. As Daniel Craig’s James Bond character put it in the movie Casino Royale: “So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.”


How do you know when to step in? What are the warning signs that tell you it’s time to start taking charge? Robert Burgelman developed the concept of ‘strategic dissonance’, which is a growing disconnect between where you are trying to go and what is actually happening. If you’re talking up your company’s digital information strategy, but salespeople are continuing to sell paper-based subscriptions, then you have an acute case of strategic dissonance.


To monitor it, you need to get unfiltered, real-time information from those on the front line, and then you need an inner circle of advisors to help you make sense of the often-contradictory views you hear: “I interpret the information like this, tell me why I might be wrong,” is the type of question you should be asking.


But you also need sufficient power to enact the changes. Pascal Cagni, former head of Apple Europe, calls this ‘benevolent dictatorship’. He says most large firms’ decision-making processes are consensus-oriented, so when faced with big strategic calls, they default to conservatism and the protection of the status quo.


To overcome this inertia, you need strong leaders who are prepared to knock a few heads together and put their credibility on the line. Apple was of course led by such a dominant individual. You can see similarly autocratic behaviour from Oracle’s Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Rupert Murdoch at News Corp.


I’m not advocating dictatorship as a new best-practice. Pascal Cagni rightly points to the need for benevolent behaviour to temper the autocratic judgments of those at the top, and there is still the need for an overarching governance system to keep such individuals in check. But the observation that major, risky at-all-costs changes are typically made when power is concentrated among a few people is well heeded. So, if you seek decisive change and you don’t have formal power, you need to work hard on lobbying and building support before the decision gets made. If not, the status quo will prevail.


How to balance the act


To be an ambidextrous leader, you need to step back and seek decisiveness from others. Over the years, this style has been well documented. It takes someone who provides a clear sense of purpose, supports where necessary, and offers freedom to individuals. But it isn’t easy to do, especially if people are used to a more top-down style. It’s easy for a senior executive to ‘give’ responsibility, but that doesn’t mean the manager will always ‘take’ it. Some managers are happy to do their narrowly defined job but not to take the initiative to do anything more. Others accept the responsibility handed to them, but then fail to empower the manager below. The result is a responsibility vacuum. You have to work very hard, through a range of formal and informal means, to achieve a culture of empowerment.


Equally tricky is knowing when to step back and give more responsibility to others. As a general rule, this empowering style should be your default setting. The benevolent dictator model should only be employed in those unusual situations where big decisive changes are needed. But that doesn’t make the transition from top-down control to bottom-up ownership any easier. Giving power away like this doesn’t come naturally to anyone.  


So the answer, again, is to monitor the dissonance in the organisation: are the employee engagement levels slipping? Are you losing talented managers to competitors? Are promising ideas from below being dismissed or ignored? 


The answers are difficult to get a handle on, but they are the signs you need to heed before deciding what style is best. It requires enormous self-awareness and a good dose of humility, but ultimately, this is what ambidextrous leadership is all about.

Comments (1)

Jean Létourneau 1 years, 8 months and 23 days ago

That sounds very interesting! Would that be not better to have an ambidextrous information system where the intelligence would emerge and decisions could be made based on facts rather than having a chameleon hero driving the ship?

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