The notion of the ambidextrous leadership mandate is clear and compelling in principle, but in practice it can be quite challenging. First, individuals tend to be better at one skill than another. For example, leaders who thrive on generating short-term tangible results are often not as adept in building long-term organizational capabilities (and vice versa). Just as right-handed persons struggle with left-handed lay-ups in basketball, leaders often display a “handedness” in their leadership orientation. Of course, with awareness and practice, ambidexterity can be developed, but this is not a trivial endeavor. Hopefully, this book will offer compelling logic and some ideas as to how this ambidexterity can be cultivated.
A second complication is that sometimes the official leadership mandate is different from the unofficial one within a particular organization. When the official mandate does not align with the unofficial one, it can be devastating to leaders and organizations. Laurence Stybel and Maryanne Peabody are organizational consultants based in the Boston area. They coined the term “stealth mandate” and observed that it is very common for an executive to be given one leadership mandate while others in that same organization are operating with a completely different mandate.
Generally speaking, leadership mandates fall into one of three major categories: continuity, good to great, and turnaround. Continuity means business as usual: carrying on policies, procedures, and strategies. A typical example is the interim CEO, selected to maintain the status quo until a permanent CEO is found. Good to great refers to Jim Collins’s bestselling book of the same name. A good-to-great mandate is essentially this: We’ve been doing fine, but we can—and need to—do even better. Turnaround means dramatic changes are necessary: No business process, job, or strategy is sacred. 1
For example, CEOs are sometimes hired to move the organization from “good” to “great.” However, if the top management team or the board of directors or both are operating with a “continuity” mandate, the unofficial mandate clashes with the official one, and chaos often unfolds. When the official mandate is fundamentally different from the unofficial mandate, steps must be taken to bring them into alignment. Usually, this requires extraordinary conflict management skills and emotional maturity on the part of the leader.
A third complication that can challenge this ambidextrous approach to leadership is when the environmental context doesn’t allow the executive sufficient discretion to pursue short-term results while building organizational capacity for change. Some industries are in terminal decline, and the executive leader is not afforded the “luxury” of working for long-term survival. Some nations put employment ahead of productivity, and the executive leader is not allowed to challenge underperforming units. And some organizational cultures value stasis over excellence. All these constraints can conspire to limit executive discretion so that change capacity is not developed.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, organizations are built to perform within an established order, not to change. Managers are often rewarded for predictable results so organizational bureaucracy often gravitates to exploitation over experimentation, efficiency over effectiveness, and leveraging previous learning over generating new insights. Hence, it is a rare organization that is “built to change.” 2