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Assessing flexible leadership as a mastery of opposites

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Because flexible leadership is vital to organizational adaptability and performance, it is important to measure flexibility to identify leadership potential and to guide the development of managers. The most common method for measuring the flexibility of managers involves coworker ratings to survey items that ask about general tendencies for a manager to change behavior in response to changing situational conditions. Unfortunately, there are significant limitations to this approach. This article discusses an alternative method grounded in complexity theories of organizations and leader behavior. In this view, flexible leadership is conceptualized as the mastery of opposing but complementary behaviors in terms of how one leads as well as in terms of what organizational issues a leader focuses on. The mechanics of assessing this conception of flexible leadership are described in detail along with a demonstration of its ability to predict leadership effectiveness. Pros and cons associated with applying the mastery of opposites approach are discussed along with suggestions for how consultants and talent managers can use it. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
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ASSESSING FLEXIBLE LEADERSHIP AS A
MASTERY OF OPPOSITES
Robert B. Kaiser and Darren V. Overfield
Kaplan DeVries Inc., Greensboro, North Carolina
Because flexible leadership is vital to organizational adaptability and performance, it is
important to measure flexibility to identify leadership potential and to guide the devel-
opment of managers. The most common method for measuring the flexibility of
managers involves coworker ratings to survey items that ask about general tendencies for
a manager to change behavior in response to changing situational conditions. Unfortu-
nately, there are significant limitations to this approach. This article discusses an
alternative method grounded in complexity theories of organizations and leader behav-
ior. In this view, flexible leadership is conceptualized as the mastery of opposing but
complementary behaviors in terms of how one leads as well as in terms of what
organizational issues a leader focuses on. The mechanics of assessing this conception of
flexible leadership are described in detail along with a demonstration of its ability to
predict leadership effectiveness. Pros and cons associated with applying the mastery of
opposites approach are discussed along with suggestions for how consultants and talent
managers can use it.
Keywords: leadership, flexibility, mastery of opposites, versatility
Henry Mintzberg’s (1975) classic ethnographic studies described managerial work in terms of an
unrelenting tempo punctuated by a staccato rhythm of disparate and often unrelated activities. This
characterization seems to be increasingly apt as the pace of change has accelerated because of the
familiar cast of reasons like rapid advances in technology, more and faster flow of information,
flatter organizational structures, global competition, and the like. In the post-9/11 world and the
wake of the recent near-collapse of the global economy, crisis and disruptive change seem to be the
order of the day. This puts a premium on nimble managers who can adapt on the fly.
Recent books like The Leadership Pipeline (Charan, Drotter, & Noel, 2001) and What Got You
Here Won’t Get You There (Goldsmith & Reiter, 2007) and earlier theories like Arthur Freedman’s
(1998) Pathways and Crossroads model have emphasized how the competencies and skills needed
for success change as managers climb the corporate ladder. Managers need to bend and flex in new
directions as they navigate their career paths and transition into positions of greater responsibility.
For example, researchers have found that effective middle managers take quick, decisive action,
whereas effective executives are more thoughtful and deliberative in making big-bet decisions
Robert B. Kaiser is a Partner and Darren V. Overfield a Senior Consultant, with the executive development and
research firm of Kaplan DeVries Inc, Greensboro, North Carolina.
Robert B. Kaiser has a commercial interest in the Leadership Versatility Index described in this article.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Robert B. Kaiser, Kaplan DeVries Inc.,
1903G Ashwood Court, Greensboro, NC 27455. E-mail: rkaiser@kaplandevries.com
Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research © 2010 American Psychological Association
2010, Vol. 62, No. 2, 105–118 1065-9293/10/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0019987
105
(Brousseau, Driver, Hourihan, & Larsson, 2006). Such discontinuities also create adaptive pressures
that favor managers with the flexibility to change their approach in response to changing circum-
stances.
Given the centrality of flexibility to managerial effectiveness, it is important to measure and
assess flexibility to determine which managers will make the best leaders and to help individual
managers become better leaders. This article concerns the practical question, “How should talent
professionals and consulting psychologists assess flexible leadership?”
Defining Flexible Leadership
A competent assessment begins with a clear conceptual definition of what is to be assessed. The
term flexible leadership may seem self-explanatory. It appears that the adjective flexible has been
paired with the noun leadership to make general descriptive statements, but the field has yet to
formally define a concept of flexible leadership. As some researchers have noted, “adaptability,
flexibility, and versatility are elusive concepts that have not been well defined in the psychological
literature and are therefore difficult to measure, predict, and teach effectively” (Pulakos, Arad,
Donovan, & Plamondon, 2000, p. 612). Indeed, it is difficult to find a definition of flexible
leadership Even a book with the title Flexible Leadership (Yukl & Lepsinger, 2004) did not provide
an explicit definition.
Perhaps the closest to an articulated definition comes from research by Stephen Zaccaro. In a
series of studies (e.g., Zaccaro, Foti, & Kenny, 1991; Zaccaro, Gilbert, Thor, & Mumford, 1991),
Zaccaro and colleagues studied the relationships among social perceptiveness, self-monitoring,
behavioral flexibility, and leadership effectiveness. These authors described flexible leaders as being
able to respond effectively in diverse situations, which requires, they believed, the capability to
recognize what is expected of the leader and what the group needs to do in each situation and then
to respond accordingly. There are two key points to this view. First is the ability to correctly
diagnose a given situation to identify an appropriate behavioral response, and second, the ability to
perform that behavior effectively. By “appropriate behavior” they meant that the leader’s response
is functional in being helpful to group performance by facilitating coordination, cohesion, task
accomplishment, problem-solving, and the like (cf. Yukl & Mahsud, 2010, this issue).
This conception of flexible leadership is consistent with traditional views of interpersonal
flexibility in the study of psychological adjustment, which emphasize both a wide range of
interpersonal responses and situational appropriateness (Paulhus & Martin, 1988). It is also the
perspective that recent research on flexible and adaptive leadership seems to follow (cf. Nelson,
Zaccaro, & Herman, 2010, this issue). Changing conditions are central to this view of flexibility. For
instance, flexibility is discussed in the context of organizational change (e.g., Pulakos et al., 2000),
performing different social roles (e.g., Zaccaro, Foti, & Kenny, 1991), and juggling multiple, and
conflicting, determinants of organizational performance (e.g., efficiency, innovation, and human
resources; Yukl & Lepsinger, 2004). This seems representative of the multiplicity of demands
Mintzberg (1975) described as tugging managers in different directions.
Based on the literature, we propose the following definition of flexible leadership: adjusting
one’s leadership style, method, or approach in response to different or changing contextual
demands in a way that facilitates group performance. It is implied that flexible leadership requires
a wide behavioral repertoire corresponding to the many different types of social and organizational
roles that leaders need to perform. It is further assumed that flexible leadership depends on knowing
when to do what, and being able to skillfully execute what needs to be done.
It may help to distinguish between flexibility conceived as a personality disposition, and
flexibility conceived as leadership behavior. For instance, the Big Five dimension Openness to
Experience is thought in part to represent a tendency to enjoy novelty, change, and variety. This is
a general disposition to behave in ways that may be responsive to change. On the other hand, flexible
leadership is a characteristic of how leader behavior is actually expressed in changing conditions.
Personality and behavior are conceptually distinct, yet empirically related. Openness is correlated
106 KAISER AND OVERFIELD
with flexible leadership behavior, but the relationship is far from being strong enough to equate the
two (Kemp, Zaccaro, Jordan, & Flippo, 2004).
Assessing Flexible Leadership
The next question concerns how to assess flexible leadership behavior. It seems simple enough
to measure flexibility in a manner similar to how we would measure any other competency or
behavioral dimension using the 360-degree feedback method. This would entail the use of coworker
ratings of a manager’s performance on questionnaire items about making behavioral adjustments,
dealing with change, and varying one’s approach with the situation. But it turns out that this
straightforward method is limited.
Kaiser, Lindberg, and Craig (2007) recently compared different ways to assess leadership
flexibility. They noted that the competency approach just described is the dominant method used to
assess flexible leadership in practice. For instance, a review of commercially available 360-degree
feedback instruments found that most of them included a dimension labeled flexibility, adaptability,
agility, and so forth (Leslie & Fleenor, 1998). The definitions of these dimensions were similar and
consistent with the definition offered above (e.g., “easily adjusts to change,” “ability to move
quickly, deal with ambiguity, and accept change”) and each was measured using ratings on
statements about whether managers varied or adjusted their behavior.
The Kaiser et al. (2007) study concluded that the competency approach to assessing flexibility
was limited. First, flexibility measured this way was minimally predictive of leadership effective-
ness. Moreover, competency measures were determined to mostly represent flexibility in an
interpersonal sense— being flexible in relation to other people. Competency measures represent to
a far less degree the flexible use of different problem solving, decision making, and managerial
techniques. Furthermore, typical competency-based measures of flexibility provide vague develop-
mental feedback. Suppose a manager gets low ratings on the item, “Adjusts her approach in response
to changing business conditions.”
1
How is the manager to know which behaviors need more
adjusting and in response to what conditions? It is one thing to know that one needs to be more
flexible. It is another thing to know how to be more flexible. Most feedback in terms of a flexibility
competency is neither behaviorally precise nor prescriptive, which limits its usefulness as devel-
opmental feedback.
Assessing Flexibility as a Mastery of Opposites
Kaiser and colleagues (2007) suggested that an alternative approach to assessing flexible
leadership may overcome the limits of the competency-based approach. They labeled the alternative
a “mastery of opposites” because this approach views flexible leadership in terms of capability with
opposing, but complementary, behaviors. For example, talking and listening are complementary but
opposing behaviors. Effective communicators are good at both. Ineffective communicators have not
mastered each set of behaviors—many talk too much and don’t listen enough, some listen intently
but don’t share their thoughts, and others neither listen nor speak up.
The mastery of opposites approach seems well-suited to the complex world of modern business.
Every decision can be a trade-off in an economy fraught with paradoxical demands. For example,
those we compete with in one arena may be our partners in another. Maximizing profits today often
conflicts with investing in tomorrow. The need to produce can clash with concern for people and
human limits. These tensions and trade-offs make leadership a balancing act.
1
We recognize that items could be written to be more behaviorally precise, but that appears to be the
exception not the rule. This example item is consistent with the types of items commonly used in competency-
based measures of flexibility (cf. Leslie & Fleenor, 1998).
107FLEXIBLE LEADERSHIP SPECIAL ISSUE: MASTERY OF OPPOSITES
The Wisdom of Opposites
The integration of opposing forces is a common theme in the wisdom traditions of both the East
and the West. For instance, the Eastern concept of yin-yang describes how apparently contradictory
forces are interconnected in the natural world. According to Taoist philosophy, everything has both
yin and yang components that are in constant interaction, never resting in a static state of balance
but rather constantly adjusting to find harmony in a fluid and dynamic equilibrium. Like waves in
the ocean, each advancing crest is complemented by a retreating undertow and every rise becomes
a fall. Daylight is yang to the darkness of night’s yin. Masculinity is yang to femininity’s yin in
social interaction. Yin and yang are complementary but opposing forces that form a greater whole
and each is dependent on the other. When either force dominates, harmony is disrupted and the
larger whole is compromised.
A similar idea is contained in the Medicine Wheel teachings of the Plains Indians of North
America (Storm, 1972). This concept uses the four cardinal directions to delineate “Four Great
Powers” and perspectives for perceiving the world. To the North is the White Buffalo of Wisdom
with its knowledge and experience and to the South is its opposite, the Green Mouse of Innocence
with its faith and openness. To the West is the Black Bear of Introspection looking inward and to
the East is the Gold Eagle of Illumination for seeing far and wide. According to the Plains Indians,
each person is born within one of these four positions, a beginning place that defines what will be
the easiest and most natural way of being. However, to become whole each person must grow by
seeking understanding in the other three directions. Mastery of all four is required for an individual
to become complete and balanced in perception, thought, and action.
Theoretical Roots in Management Science
Modern scholars have created models of leadership that closely parallel the ideas about
opposing forces found in the wisdom traditions. This work takes a functional perspective and
considers the behavioral repertoire needed to perform the variety of roles needed to deal with
complex organizational systems (Dennison, Hooijberg, & Quinn, 1995; Hooijberg, Hunt, & Dodge,
1997). This line of thinking can be traced to Robert Quinn (1988) and his Competing Values
Framework. Quinn argued that conflicting needs are inherent in complex organizations, as seen in
the oppositional nature of the four dominant models of organizational effectiveness described in the
literature. The four primary perspectives are the human relations, open systems, internal process, and
rational goal models. For example, the human relations model emphasizes people and relationships,
whereas the rational goal model emphasizes production and results. The open systems model
focuses on adaptation to the external environment, whereas the internal process model considers the
efficiency of systems and procedures within an organization. Moreover, these distinct views are not
just different schools of thought on organizational effectiveness but are also alternative frames of
reference that individual managers can adopt.
A key assumption in the Competing Values Framework is that, despite the natural tension
among them, all four perspectives have their uses and managers need facility with each. In this
manner they can deftly apply the perspective best suited for the situation at hand. To account for
how managers do this, Hooijberg and Quinn (1992, p. 164) offered the concept of behavioral
complexity—“the ability to act out a cognitively complex strategy by playing multiple, even
competing roles, in a highly integrated and complementary way.” Much like Taoists view yin and
yang in harmony, Quinn has described this as the simultaneous operation of opposites using the
term, interpenetration (Quinn, Spreitzer, & Hart, 1992). The Competing Values Framework en-
compasses two interpenetrations. The first, Tough Love, represents integration of the rational goal
and human relations opposition and is defined as the capability to push for productivity while also
building cohesion and morale. Practical Vision, the second interpenetration, has to do with the
conflict between the open systems and internal process models and involves the capacity to both
adapt and introduce change and maintain stability and predictability.
Practitioners have similarly discussed managerial flexibility. Sloan (1994) listed several bal-
ances to be struck, like competition and collaboration, vision and pragmatism, change and conti-
108 KAISER AND OVERFIELD
nuity, and so on. Johnson (1996) pointed out that opposing organizational needs like innovation
versus efficiency or results versus relationships pose dilemmas that cannot be solved. Rather,
Johnson frames them as polarities that must be actively managed, which implies the need for
leadership that can readily adjust to changing priorities and shifting points of emphasis.
Zaccaro (2001) reviewed the research on these more complex models of flexibility, and
concluded that “leader effectiveness entails the mastery of countervailing behavior patterns” (p.134,
italics added). In other words, effective leadership requires patterns of managerial behavior that are
analogous to harmony in Taoism and Wholeness as defined by the Plains Indians. This involves
capability and skill with contrasting behaviors that are functional despite seeming to be mutually
exclusive. Thus, the mastery of opposites approach is consistent with our definition of flexible
leadership in that it concerns the ability to respond appropriately to the different demands brought
on by changing conditions. However, it is different from the competency approach in that the
opposites approach identifies a specific repertoire of opposing but complementary behaviors that are
appropriate to a range of conditions.
Assessment Model
There are three key considerations in applying the mastery of opposites model to assess a
manger’s degree of flexibility: behavioral content, measurement methodology, and integration of
scores on opposing dimensions.
Behavioral Content
Fortunately for the present perspective, theorists have tended to describe leadership with pairs
of opposing behaviors, dimensions, and styles. In addition to those mentioned above, familiar
examples include autocratic versus democratic, task-oriented versus people-oriented, initiative
versus consideration, transformational versus transactional, change versus stability, and efficiency
versus innovation. Two broad distinctions can be joined to provide an integrative framework for
incorporating these opposites. First is John Kotter’s (1990) popular distinction between leadership
and management. Kotter portrayed management as achieving efficiency and predictability through
command and control. In contrast, he portrayed leadership as inspiring people with a vision of
change.
A second broad distinction is between the interpersonal and the organizational aspects of
leadership. For instance, Dubin (1979) distinguished leadership in an organization (interpersonal
influence) from leadership of an organization (structural influence). Zaccaro (2001) contrasted direct
influence of the interpersonal variety with impersonal, indirect influences that guide and constrain
employees through direction, goals, plans, and policies. We prefer to incorporate these ideas using
generic labels, the interpersonal how and the organizational what of leadership, because they are
more inclusive terms that also describe the essence of this distinction.
Combining the Management versus Leadership distinction with the How versus What distinc-
tion leads to the model of opposing domains of behavior presented in Figure 1.
Directive versus collaborative. At the center of this pair is how leaders exert influence:
top-down, where the leader uses power and self-assertion to initiate activity, compared with a more
inclusive process of relating to other people and engaging their contributions. One aspect of this
distinction concerns the locus of action and authority— can the leader both take the initiative to
direct activity and grant autonomy to others to determine how to do their work? Another aspect
concerns decision making and the extent to which the leader takes a position and makes decisions
independently as well as solicits input from others and involves them to various degrees. A third
aspect of this distinction compares driving for performance with high expectations and account-
ability on the directive side to a supportive orientation that is concerned about employee morale,
engagement, and well-being on the collaborative side.
Execution versus strategy. This pair considers what organizational needs leaders focus on:
executing to produce results in the near term versus positioning the organization to be viable in the
109FLEXIBLE LEADERSHIP SPECIAL ISSUE: MASTERY OF OPPOSITES
long run. A major aspect of this distinction contrasts managing the tactical details needed to get
work done on the one hand, and setting direction with a broad vision for the future on the other hand.
Another aspect concerns the tension between a selective focus on key priorities and concern with
efficiency and conserving resources versus an expansive ambition to build capability and grow the
business. A third aspect of this distinction contrasts establishing stability and consistency by using
systems and process discipline to manage an orderly flow of work compared with creating a climate
of experimentation and creativity by supporting innovation.
We do not mean to suggest that this model of opposites covers every pair of opposing forces in
leadership. For instance, many new executives struggle with a balance between technical expertise
and general management. However, this model does seem to represent the majority of opposing
dimensions discussed in the leadership literature.
Measurement Method
The next consideration concerns how to measure opposing behaviors. Performance ratings are
the most common and easiest to implement method. Thus, although there are other methods for
assessing managerial behavior (e.g., assessment centers, simulations), our focus is on coworker
ratings. Coworker ratings are typically gathered with a Likert-type scale containing a set of
behavioral items rated on a response scale, such as the ubiquitous five-point scale where higher
ratings indicate either more of the behavior in question or more effective use of the behavior. Nearly
all coworker rating questionnaires, including 360-degree feedback instruments, employ this mea-
surement method (Leslie & Fleenor, 1998).
However, typical response scale formats pose a significant problem: they produce scores on
supposedly opposing leadership behaviors that are positively correlated. This suggests a normative
trend where the more managers use one behavior, the more they use its opposite. For instance,
reviews of the Leader Behavior Description Questionnaire—the most valid and widely used
measure of consideration and initiating structure from the leader behavior paradigm—reported that
the correlation between these two is in the .40 to .50 range (Judge, Piccolo, & Ilies, 2004;
Schriesheim, House, & Kerr, 1976). Even measures based on the Competing Values Framework
routinely show positive correlations between supposed opposites when measured with a traditional
response scale (e.g., Dennison et al., 1995; Lawrence, Lenk, & Quinn, 2009).
Consider the data presented in Figure 2, which portrays the relationship between opposing
“directive” and “collaborative” factors based on ratings from coworkers of 493 senior managers on
a popular commercial 360 instrument. The ratings were made on a five-point response scale where
Figure 1. A model of opposing behaviors. Example behaviors are illustrative. For a thorough review
of the scholarly literature in terms of this framework, see Kaplan and Kaiser (2006, pp. 193–196).
110 KAISER AND OVERFIELD
five indicates more of the behavior in question. The correlation between the two factors is r .49,
right in line with prior research. This figure shows what most feedback coaches have experienced:
managers rated high on one dimension tend to be rated high on other dimensions, most ratings are
bunched together at the high end of the scale, and it is hard to tell the difference between ratings on
different dimensions.
The problem is that these empirical findings are not consistent with the underlying theory. A key
assumption in the mastery of opposites model is that contrasting behaviors represent opposing forces
that often conflict with one another (Dennison et al., 1995; Kaplan & Kaiser, 2003, 2006; Lawrence
et al., 2009; Quinn, 1988; Zaccaro, 2001) which implies an inverse relationship. It seems that either
the assumption of a conflict between opposites is wrong or the positive relations are artifacts of the
measurement method.
We believe the problem is with traditional rating scales and their implicit assumption that “more
is better.” For instance, a novel rating scale originally proposed by Kaplan (1996) and refined by
Kaiser and Kaplan (2005) produces different results from traditional scales. The new scale ranges
from 4to4, where 4to1 represents degrees of “too little” and 1to4 represents degrees
of “too much.” And like Goldilocks’ porridge, ratings of 0 represent “just right” (Figure 3). The new
scale allows raters to distinguish when managers do a lot of a particular behavior from when they
overdo it, such as when strengths become weaknesses through overuse. It is also consistent with the
assumption of a conflict between opposites that implies doing too much of one thing comes at the
expense of its opposite.
In contrast to the data presented in Figure 2, consider the data presented in Figure 4.
Figure 4 presents the relationship between ratings on the opposing Forceful and Enabling scales
(r ⫽⫺.59) and the opposing Strategic and Operational scales (r ⫽⫺.21) on the Leadership
Versatility Index (LVI; Kaiser, Overfield, & Kaplan, 2010), which employs the “Too little/Too
much” rating scale. The results are based on coworker ratings for 484 managers and executives.
The negative correlations for each pair of opposites are consistent with the underlying theory
and suggest that the new rating scale may be a better method than traditional scales for assessing
a mastery of opposites.
12 3 4 5
12 3 4 5
Directive
12 3 4 512 3 4 5
12 3 4 5
r = +.49
Collaborative
Figure 2. Relationship between opposing behaviors rated on a five-point scale. Based on the average
rating across all superior, peer, and subordinates for 493 executives. The “Directive” and “Collaborative”
scales are from an extensively researched and validated commercial instrument. We use them in this
example because we had the data at our disposal and they illustrate the larger point.
111FLEXIBLE LEADERSHIP SPECIAL ISSUE: MASTERY OF OPPOSITES
Quantifying the Degree of Flexibility
In the mastery of opposites approach, flexibility is viewed as a higher-order construct composed
of discreet, lower-level, and narrowly defined behaviors (Kaiser et al., 2007). It is an integrative
concept derived from two first-order concepts, just as harmony is a higher-order concept in Taoism
because it is determined by the primary forces of yin and yang. This idea of flexibility is complex,
and representing it quantitatively is accordingly complex.
The simplest way to quantify flexibility with ratings of opposing behaviors is to compute an
average score. However, this procedure makes implicit assumptions about the meaning of different
profiles that may not be warranted. For instance, a rating of 5 on directive and a rating of 1 on
participative would represents the same degree of flexibility as a rating of 3 on both, but the latter
profile is more consistent with mastery of these opposites than the former.
To get around this problem, Quinn and colleagues have recommended using a formula for
integrating bipolar constructs rated independently on a traditional response scale (Bobko &
Schwartz, 1984). This method was developed as a way to create a single continuous variable to
represent the integrative balance of conceptually opposing constructs. The equation is:
Integrative Balance [(k 1) (X Y)] [(X Y)/2]
+
2
+
2
+2+2+2
+1
+
ul
+1
+
ul
+1
ic
+1+1
0
Forcefu
0
Forcefu
0
Strategi
00
-
2-1
F
-
2-1
F
r = -
.59
-2 -1
S
-2 -1-2 -1
r = -
.21
-2 -1 0 +1 +2
Enabling
Too little Too much
The right
amount
Too little Too much
The right
amount
-
-2 -1 0 +1 +2
Enabling
Too little Too much
The right
amount
Too little Too much
The right
amount
-
-2 -1 0 +1 +2
Operational
Too little Too much
The right
amount
Too little Too much
The right
amount
-2 -1 0 +1 +2
Too little Too much
The right
amount
Too little Too much
The right
amount
-2 -1 0 +1 +2
Too little Too much
The right
amount
Too little Too much
The right
amount
Too little
The right
amount
Too much
Too little
The right
amount
Too much
Figure 4. Relationships between opposing behaviors rated on a “Too much/Too little” scale. Based on
the average rating across all superiors, peers, and subordinates for 484 managers and executives.
Figure 3. The “Too Little/Too Much” rating scale. This rating scale is probably different from scales
that you are accustomed to using. On this scale the best score is “0,” in the middle of the scale. The
premise is that performance problems arise when managers either do too little or do too much of
something. WARNING: Some people misread this scale. This is not the usual scale in which higher scores
are better. Reprinted from Leadership Versatility Index version 3.0: Facilitator’s Guide (p. 6), by R. B.
Kaiser, D. V. Overfield, and R. E. Kaplan, 2010, Greensboro, NC: Kaplan DeVries Inc. Copyright 2010
by Kaplan DeVries Inc. Reprinted with permission.
112 KAISER AND OVERFIELD
where X and Y are scores for opposites to be integrated and measured on a scale ranging from 1 to
k (e.g., k 5 for five-point scales). High scores indicate managers who are rated high but relatively
equal on opposing behaviors and lower scores reflect high on one, low on the other.
The integrative balance formula, however, is not appropriate for behaviors rated on the new
“Too Little/Too Much” scale. For these ratings, geometry can be used to consider jointly the extent
to which a manager is rated as using opposing behaviors optimally versus doing too much of one
and too little of the other. For example, in the upper left-hand corner of Figure 5 is a plot for ratings
in the “too much” region on directive and in the “too little” region on collaborative. The distance
this pair of ratings is from “the right amount” on both behaviors can be derived from the
Pythagorean theorem (see Kaplan & Kaiser, 2006, pp. 206 –210). It is calculated as:
c
2
a
2
b
2
where a directive rating, b collaborative rating, and c distance from optimal on both. A score
for a given pair is calculated as the ratio of the observed distance from optimal to the maximum
possible distance from optimal (i.e., scores on the extreme ends of the scale, 4 and 4 for the scale
shown in Figure 3). So that higher scores indicate greater degrees of flexibility, this value is
subtracted from 100%, and the resulting scores can range from 0% (least flexible) to 100% (most
flexible).
Perhaps the greatest limitation of the mastery of opposites approach is that it relies on these
obscure methods to roll up scores on opposing behavioral dimensions in order to quantify flexibility.
Computationally, it is not difficult to apply these procedures. But practically these methods may lack
face validity with managers receiving feedback. At a minimum, expertise and time is required to
explain how the integrative metrics are derived.
Predicting Leadership Effectiveness
The next question concerns the validity and utility of the mastery of opposites approach: is
flexibility measured in this manner predictive of leadership effectiveness? The Kaiser et al. (2007)
study compared the relative validity of three different methods for measuring flexibility—the
common competency approach and two versions of the mastery of opposites approach, one using a
traditional rating scale with the integrative balance formula and the other using the “Too Little/Too
Much” scale with Pythagorean geometry. The results indicated that the two mastery of opposites
Too Mu ch
DIRECTIVE
Too Lit tle
DIRECTIVE
Too Mu ch
COLLABORATIVE
Too Li ttle
COLLABORATIVE
a
b
c
The Right
Amount
Distance
from optimal
Figure 5. Computing flexibility on opposing behaviors rated on the “Too Much/Too Little” scale using
the Pythagorean Theorem. For computational details, see Kaplan and Kaiser (2006, pp. 206 –210).
113FLEXIBLE LEADERSHIP SPECIAL ISSUE: MASTERY OF OPPOSITES
methods were much more predictive of independent ratings of leadership effectiveness than the
competency method. Furthermore, although the two mastery of opposites methods demonstrated
convergent and discriminant validity, the one based on “Too Little/Too Much” ratings was a better
predictor of rated effectiveness.
However, ratings of overall effectiveness are only one indicator of leadership impact. Moreover,
such ratings of an individual leader primarily reflect how well raters approve of the leader and thus
how well the leader manages his or her career; effective leadership per se is better measured in terms
of the performance of the team for which a leader is responsible (Kaiser, Hogan, & Craig, 2008).
Therefore, we examined the validity of the mastery of opposites method in predicting a broader and
more representative range of leadership effectiveness criteria.
Method
For this analysis we used a sample of coworker ratings on the LVI 360-degree feedback
instrument (Kaiser et al., 2010) for 484 managers and executives from a variety of mostly
U.S.-based firms.
2
On average, managers were rated by 13 total coworkers—two superiors, five
peers, and six subordinates. Concerning job levels of the managers, 110 reported their jobs to be
supervisor or manager, 204 reported their jobs to be functional heads or middle managers and 126
indicated they held positions of general manager or executive. A total of 44 did not indicate their
managerial level.
The LVI contains four primary scales each composed of 12 items; the Forceful and Enabling
scales represent the interpersonal how and the Strategic and Operational scales represent the
organizational what. Items on the LVI are rated on the “Too Little/Too Much” scale. To represent
flexibility in terms of the how and the what, we computed Forceful-Enabling Versatility Scores and
Strategic-Operational Versatility Scores using the procedure described above with Pythagorean
geometry applied to each rater’s responses. Next we computed the average versatility score across
all superior, peer, and subordinate coworkers for each manager. Cronbach’s coefficient alpha
reliability values were .95 for both aggregated scores.
We used three different measures to represent distinct aspects of leadership effectiveness—
Perceived Effectiveness of the individual leader, Team Process and Team Results (cf. Kaiser et al.,
2008). Perceived Effectiveness was measured with peer ratings to the item, “Please rate this
manager’s overall effectiveness as a leader on a 10-point scale where 5 is adequate and 10 is
outstanding.” We used peer ratings to measure Perceived Effectiveness because peer evaluations
have been shown to predict long-term career success (Kraut, 1975). Team Process was measured by
subordinate ratings on a three-item scale labeled Vitality which represents the degree of morale,
engagement, and cohesion among members of the teams for which the managers in our sample are
responsible. Subordinate ratings are appropriate because the construct of interest concerns their
attitudes. Finally, team results were measured by superior ratings on a three-item scale labeled
Productivity which represents the quantity, quality, and overall output of the teams or units for
which the managers are responsible. Superiors are in perhaps the best position to know about the
productivity of these teams. Admittedly, it would be more desirable to use objective measures of
productivity, rather than subjective ratings that are susceptible to error and bias. Unfortunately
objective measures were not available.
The Vitality and Productivity items were rated on a traditional five-point scale, where higher
ratings indicate more of the attribute. Prior research has shown that these scales are valid measures
that correlate as expected with similar measures of team performance (cf. Kaiser et al., 2010). In the
present sample, the vitality and productivity scales were reliable; Cronbach’s alpha estimates of
internal consistency were .87 and .89, respectively. Correlations among the three criteria were
statistically significant ( p .01) but moderate in size (suggesting an appropriate level of discrim-
2
This is the same sample used to determine the relationship between opposing behaviors depicted in
Figure 4.
114 KAISER AND OVERFIELD
inate validity: perceived effectiveness-vitality r .32, perceived effectiveness-productivity r .39,
and vitality-productivity r .25).
Results
Our analytic strategy involved three multiple regression analyses using ratings averaged across
all coworkers for Forceful-Enabling Versatility and Strategic-Operational Versatility to predict
peer-rated effectiveness, subordinate-rated team vitality, and superior-rated team productivity. We
expected both versatility scores to predict peer-rated effectiveness on the assumption that peer
evaluations would reflect flexibility in terms of both style (Forceful-Enabling, how) and substance
(Strategic-Operational, what). We expected how managers lead (Forceful-Enabling versatility) to be
the stronger predictor of the subordinate attitudes reflected in the vitality ratings, and what managers
focus on (Strategic-Operational Versatility) to be the stronger predictor of productivity. The results
of the three regression analyses are presented in Table 1.
Two overall trends warrant comment. First, it is evident that mastery of opposing leadership
behaviors is powerfully related to the three indices of effectiveness; the multiple correlations (R
values) range from .36 to .64, which qualify as moderate to large effects. This indicates that such
flexibility is important both to managers’ careers as well as to the performance of organizations.
Second, there is support for the how and what distinction—these two types of flexibility have unique
functions. Flexibility in terms of how one leads drives subordinate attitudes, flexibility in terms of
what organizational issues leaders focus on drives team results, and both forms of flexibility affect
the perceived effectiveness of managers. Taken together, we interpret these results as indicating that
the mastery of opposites approach holds great potential utility for identifying the most flexible and
adaptable leaders and guiding the development of all managers in becoming better leaders.
Advantages and Applications
As with any comparison, there are pros and cons to the mastery of opposites approach as
compared to the competency approach for assessing flexible leadership. On the one hand, the
competency approach is simpler and more familiar. It also requires fewer resources to administer.
Scales for measuring flexibility with the competency method typically contain five to 10 items; it
may take four times as many items to measure mastery of both the how and the what because you
must measure four discreet dimensions. This makes competency measures of flexibility easier to
include within more comprehensive competency models that organizations may require. Also,
competency measures of flexibility are likely to have greater face validity with managers whereas
the computational “black box” used to derive an overall score to represent the mastery of opposites
may seem arcane.
Table 1
Summary of Regression Analyses Predicting Leadership Effectiveness
Effectiveness indicators
Perceived effectiveness
(peers)
Team vitality
(subordinates)
Team productivity
(superiors)
␤␤
Flexibility in terms of How
Forceful-enabling versatility .30
ⴱⴱⴱ
.32
ⴱⴱⴱ
.02
Flexibility in terms of What
Strategic-operational versatility .38
ⴱⴱⴱ
.16
.38
ⴱⴱⴱ
Model R .64
ⴱⴱⴱ
.46
ⴱⴱⴱ
.36
ⴱⴱⴱ
p .05.
ⴱⴱⴱ
p .001.
115FLEXIBLE LEADERSHIP SPECIAL ISSUE: MASTERY OF OPPOSITES
Advantages to Opposites
On the other hand, flexibility assessed as a mastery of opposites has several advantages. First,
prior research has shown that it is much more predictive of leadership effectiveness than flexibility
assessed with the competency method, meaning that the information the opposites measures provide
has a greater bearing on important outcomes (Kaiser et al., 2007). The opposites approach is also
more conceptually compelling; our experience is that managers find these models intriguing and
resonate with the tensions and trade-offs they represent. Furthermore, because the opposites
approach builds on feedback about specific behaviors, it may be more helpful in development.
Whereas it is difficult to act on feedback to “be more flexible,” it is instructive to receive feedback
that you need to “talk less and listen more.”
Although our focus has been on the assessment of flexible leadership behavior, in terms of
development it is important to recognize that behavior is the product of cognitive and emotional/
motivational factors. Research has shown that flexible leadership depends on such cognitive factors
as social intelligence and tacit knowledge to accurately read a situation and determine the best way
to respond (Zaccaro, Foti, & Kenny, 1991). In terms of emotions and motivation, managers must
feel positive about performing those behaviors and they must believe that performing each behavior
will lead to valued outcomes. Further, those behaviors also must be consistent with a manager’s
identity or self-concept.
Fortunately, many instructional resources exist for helping managers address these factors in
learning to master opposing behaviors. In terms of knowing when to do what, there are several
situational models of when to employ the directive versus collaborative approach in the psycho-
logical literature—for example, Hersey and Blanchard’s situational leadership theory, Fielder’s
contingency theory, House’s path-goal theory, and Vroom’s normative decision model. And
although there are few analogous models with robust research support for when to focus on strategic
positioning versus tactical execution, organizational life cycle theories are suggestive. There are also
useful frameworks in recent articles in Harvard Business Review that identify the business chal-
lenges that favor a strategic versus tactical approach (Dodd & Favaro, 2006; O’Reilly & Tushman,
2004).
In terms of emotional and motivational factors, consulting psychologists may find theories of
adult development to dovetail nicely with the mastery of opposites model. Jungian theory, influ-
enced by the wisdom traditions of the East, emphasizes the interplay of the opposing masculine and
feminine archetypes in development at midlife. Ericksonian theories explore the crossover from an
achievement orientation to a generative orientation as adults mature into older age. These models
help to frame, analyze, and facilitate resolution of the psychological challenges driven and assertive
managers face in becoming more participative, inclusive, and involved in developing subordinates
as well as the challenges more nurturing and other-oriented managers struggle with in becoming
more assertive and claiming their power (Lyons, 2002).
Applications
There are three ways consultants and talent managers can apply the mastery of opposites model
to assess the flexibility of managers. First, there are two commercially available feedback instru-
ments built on this model, one based on the Competing Values Framework (Lawrence et al., 2009)
and the LVI (Kaiser et al., 2010), described above.
Second, the logic of the opposites model can be applied to existing 360 feedback instruments.
This involves first identifying the pairs of opposing dimensions covered in the instrument, and then
using the computational procedures presented above for deriving an index of flexibility as an
integrative balance on each pair. This may also require some refinement in how the feedback is
presented to emphasize the opposing behaviors and their interplay. For example, it may help to
juxtapose results for directive leadership against those for collaborative leadership to emphasize
patterns of disparity.
Finally, the quantitative rating paradigm is not the only way to assess a mastery of opposites.
Another method that may actually provide richer, more nuanced, and contextually grounded
116 KAISER AND OVERFIELD
feedback is to design a structured interview protocol around the behavioral model in Figure 1.
Coworkers and other interviewees can be asked to openly describe the focal manager’s performance
in each domain. Alternatively, they can be prompted to comment on each domain in terms of Peter
Drucker’s (1967) recommended model of identifying what the manager should start doing, stop
doing, and continue doing. A content analysis of the key themes in each area can be conducted to
identify the major messages. Furthermore, juxtaposing the themes for opposing dimensions, like
tactical and strategic, can help managers readily identify which behaviors they have mastered, as
well as the ones they emphasize to the exclusion of others.
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