The Ambidextrous Leader: Learning Ambidexterity in Organizations

–Part Three

A book that came out several years ago claimed there were over 1500 definitions of leadership!

With so many different interpretations out there, is there any one true definition of leadership? And what exactly are people using? In Ambidextrous Organizations (AO) today, two definitions of leadership are currently making the rounds as those most closely embodying the kind of leader required to thrive in both exploitive and explorative environments. As you discover these varying leadership types, they may reveal leaders you hadn’t previously noticed.


The Ambidextrous Culture: Learning Ambidexterity in Organization

The Ambidextrous Leadership Model

The Ambidextrous leadership model says there are three types of leaders present in the organization at any given time. Managers focus on current complexity in the organization, Leaders focus on change and moving the organization to where it is going next, and entrepreneurs focus on opportunities. These three different positions bring different skills and abilities along with their company roles and ambidexterity (exploitation and exploration) occurs at the intersection of these behaviors.

The Complexity Leadership Model

Complexity leadership, like the ambidextrous leadership model, is comprised of three leaders. An adaptive leader focuses on change, an administrative leader focuses on current operations (think of a conductor who keeps the trains running on time for a railroad), and enabling leaders focusing on people and supporting their success (think of enabling leadership as kin to servant leadership ).

It’s important to note that in an AO all the leaders in our definitions are assumed to be equals in their respective status and potency. This is often not the case however in non-AO organizations with more rigid or vertical structures. For them, some of these other leadership positions may in fact be present but be informal, smaller in stature, or unacknowledged. In some unfortunate cases, the administrative leader might be the 800lb gorilla in the room, overpowering and overshadowing the enabling and adaptive leaders. Such dominant behavior would most likely drive those leaders to take a passive back seat role or simply disappear.   If you do work for an overpowering administrative leader as in our example, then any good done by other leaders would go unrecognized amid an overbearing train conductor with a single-minded purpose and a pocket watch. In the ambidextrous organization, there are a few additional models which enhance an ambidextrous leaders’ effectiveness.

The Learning Leader

Perhaps the most important test of an AO is the way in which it learns and executes that learning. For this reason, the ambidextrous leader must have the heart of a learner. Many savvy companies today are making room for an intriguing new position in the “C suite” known as the CLO, Chief Learning Officer. This “chief” position gives learning an equal ranking in the leadership structure alongside performance and represents an attempt to keep learning in organizations from taking a back seat to performance, aware that learning has a powerful, albeit indirect link to improved performance.

The Helping Leader

Adaptive, administrative, enabling, are all concepts linked to positive behaviors , not the least of which is helping.  Ambidextrous Leaders who are helpers develop a positive legacy of service for their organization and people to include growing relationships, demonstrating networking, creating goodwill, and courageously taking on new skills. A healthy helping strategy is never focused on payout or directly concerned with performance. Rather, helping done right is like a sleight-of-hand trick, shift your focus and intent from the potential pay-out to the experience of being helpful, and positive ancillary results magically appear.

Do either of the leadership models presented have to be made up of three individuals?

Not necessarily. If you think you have the ability to assume all three positions from either model yourself go for it. However, you may first want to look around and see if any of your people are already informally assuming these roles, and maybe encourage them to “go for it”!

EQ and the Ambidextrous Leader

Emotional quotient (EQ) or emotional intelligence (EI) has garnered a lot of attention for over a decade and there are many companies around the world who now consider EQ to be as, or more important than raw intelligence quotient (IQ). Perceiving, understanding, and managing emotions effectively are all attributes of the high EQ individual and qualities like self-awareness, self-management, good social skills, and empathy are cornerstones of this intelligence. possessing emotional intelligence is vital to the ambidextrous leader and the qualities of a high EQ person bolster their ambidextrous success, the good news about EQ is that unlike IQ which is a you get what you’re born with deal, emotional intelligence can be learned.

I got the high tech/learning connection but how did that dovetail with the company’s consistent performance, what was the catalyst that enabled him to be an effective ambidextrous leader?

A few years ago, I conducted a study on a high-tech company on the great lakes, the focus was to determine whether they were ambidextrous.  Not only did it turn out they were, practicing all 3 types of ambidexterity, but they were also doing things ambidextrously that the largest most innovative companies in the world were doing. One evening after a day of conducting field research at the manufacturing facility I sat down to dinner with the owner. As we sat for our meals I silently pondered between casual conversation how it was that this little company was practicing all 3 types of ambidexterity. I knew from my interview with the owner that he had a background in education (grade school teacher I assumed) coupled with a passion since youth for anything mechanical. I got the high tech/learning connection but how did that dovetail with the company’s consistent performance, what was the catalyst that enabled him to be an effective ambidextrous leader? As I reflected on images of him walking the factory floor in the previous days, talking with machinists, carrying equipment, taking an interest in what employees were doing, encouraging, mentoring, and helping, a thought came to my mind that I had not previously considered, and I asked, “Mike, were you ever a coach?” At that moment he stopped and looked at me in silence considering my question, and with a big smile on his face and a gleam in his eye he nodded enthusiastically, “YES” he said in a modest voice, “and I was a pretty good one!”


Dr. Eric Zabiegalski
Dr. Eric Zabiegalski
Dr. Eric Zabiegalski is a graduate of George Washington University in Human and Organizational Learning and has been researching and studying leadership, learning, and change for over 20 years. Eric has been on all sides of the leadership fence from leader and manager to employee and servant and has practiced leadership and served leaders in some of the most coveted and challenging places in the world. With an early professional history as a technical expert, Eric has gone from being a technical SME (subject matter expert) to being a people SME and considers the human mind, human behavior, and consciousness to be the next great frontier for discovery. It is in this realm where he combines his technical subject matter expertise with his human sociological and organizational expertise for the betterment of individuals, organizations, their processes, and humanity. With additional interests in emotional intelligence or "EQ", servant leadership and followership, neuroscience, complexity science, creativity and ambidextrous organizations, Eric has been driven to finding the right balance of qualities, efforts and behaviors in order to not only build better high performing and learning teams but also create a better world in which to live, love, and grow. Eric lives on the Western shore of the Chesapeake Bay close to Washington DC with his wife, daughter, and Chow dog Wamu. Eric is the author of The Rise of the Ambidextrous Organization and Leading Ambidextrous Organizations, Part 1,2,3 (E-Books).

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