How complementary leadership can help future-proof business against disruption

Future leaders: is complementary leadership the answer in the age of disruption?

By deploying and supporting diverse teams of leaders with complementary skillsets, HR leaders can ensure they meet their goal of preparing their organisations for the future, writes Aaron McEwan

Modern superhero films might seem an unlikely source of insights about future leaders. However, popular culture occasionally offers an uncannily accurate view into emerging social and business trends.

Technology is fundamentally changing how we work, with a startling 70 per cent of employees reporting they haven’t mastered the skills they need for their jobs. The reskilling challenge is not unique to one industry, geography or even level, yet it has been identified as an employee problem rather than an issue among leaders.

Leaders cite the top changes to their roles in the last three years as a greater number of job responsibilities, the expectation to have a greater number of skills and the expectation to have a greater depth of knowledge about specific areas.

Beyond the skills challenge, leaders are being asked to meet a range of new internal and external demands. They face increased scrutiny on their decision-making, must navigate economic and social volatility, radical transparency and a multitude of new forces making their jobs more complex today.

Leadership investment vs performance payoff
Unfortunately, by leaders’ own admission, they’re facing a crisis of confidence. Gartner research finds only 50 per cent of leaders agree they are well equipped to lead their organisations into the future.

HR executives agree. Fundamentally, leaders must transform to drive business into the future. To help make this transformation, HR has increased leadership development expenditures by 172 per cent in just two years from $797 per leader in 2017 to $2,169 in 2019.

Much of this investment is going into clarifying leadership competency profiles to optimise individual leader performance against a common standard. In fact, 41 per cent of surveyed HR executives are “adding new competencies to leadership models over the next 12-18 months”.

“HR has increased leadership development expenditures by 172 per cent in just two years from $797 per leader in 2017 to $2,169 in 2019”

The rise of complementary leadership
Despite this increased investment, there is little variation in team performance based on a leader’s competency profile. Gartner examined top-performing leaders and teams across all leadership competency profiles and found that most leaders have “spikey” profiles; they excel in a few competencies but also have some areas of relative weakness. The research also found that there is no ‘silver bullet’ set of competencies or gold standard leadership model that correlates with team performance.

Rather, leaders of top-performing teams share their leadership responsibilities with others. They engage in complementary leadership; the intentional partnership between one leader and one or many leader partners to share responsibilities based on complementary skillsets.

Leaders’ individual effectiveness accounts for approximately half of team performance. Complementary leadership accounts for the other half.

Future leadership lessons from Tony Stark
The original Iron Man, released in 2008, introduced us to the quintessential 21st-century superhero in the form of Tony Stark; a white, charismatic and visionary billionaire CEO with access to unlimited wealth and technology. He had some clear strengths but was also impulsive, arrogant and insecure. The original Iron Man movie poster showed Stark as a lone figure, encased in a futuristic iron suit ready to singlehandedly take on the evils of the world.

Ten years down the track, the most successful superhero film and one of the top-grossing movies of all time, follows an ethnically and gender diverse team of superheroes. Each character brings their own unique superpowers (and flaws) to create a team that works together to defeat a vastly superior enemy. The poster for Avengers: End Game, shows all the Avengers unmasked, vulnerable and paired together with their complementary partner.

“Strength-based approaches work and individual leaders do better when they share their skills and abilities with one another to compensate for individual gaps”

As popular culture is suggesting, the world’s challenges are simply too big for one leader to solve.

As HR professionals suspected, strength-based approaches work and individual leaders do better when they share their skills and abilities with one another to compensate for individual gaps. Complementary leadership represents a new tool for leaders to boost their team performance amid complexity and uncertainty and negates their need to do it all on their own. It’s a clear recognition that no well-rounded, perfect leader exists today.

Ensuring leaders are prepared to lead their teams into the future is a key component of HR strategy for most organisations today. However, HR leaders must ensure they’re directing their resources to the right components of leader development and support. Instead of relying on leadership models, HR leaders need to enable leaders to share their responsibilities with colleagues who have complementary skill sets. This not only increases leaders’ own effectiveness, but also effectively improves their teams’ performance.

Supporting leaders: 3 steps for HR
To help future leaders participate in complementary leadership, HR leaders should adjust the way they support leaders in three areas:

  1. Rather than measure leaders’ capabilities against standard metrics, enable them to understand their strengths and development areas in their own contexts.
  2. Instead of creating development programs that will transform leaders’ approach, identify ways to embed leaders’ real workflows into development, so they can make immediate and effective changes to the way they work.
  3. Rather than waiting for individual leaders to develop all necessary skills, help them find the right partners to share the responsibilities.

The world has changed and so too have our biggest threats. By deploying and supporting diverse teams of complementary leaders, HR leaders can ensure they meet their goal of preparing their organisations for the future.

Image source: Depositphotos