Barriers to versatile leadership

By Niels-Henrik Sørensen, Partner, LEAD

4 questions you need to work on to break them

To succeed as a leader today, you need to be a versatile leader. That is, you need to be able to flexibly adapt your leadership style depending on the demands and needs of the world around you. For many leaders, this is difficult. One of the biggest barriers to versatile leadership is that the leader experiences the versatile leadership style as a contradiction to maintaining their authenticity and personal freedom to be "who they are".
In this article, you will gain insight into the personal/psychological mechanisms that often become limiting factors for versatile leadership. You will also get 4 concrete questions that you as a leader or management consultant can work with to avoid this and turn the desire for freedom from a limiting force to a motivation for change.

Versatility is essential to succeed as a leader

The leadership context most leaders face today requires increased versatility. The demands for agile organization are increasing, and as a manager you have to deal with generations of employees with different needs and motivational structures in a labor market with extremely high employment where you - also - are measured on retention and employee satisfaction, and where the power relationship between manager and employee does not always fall out with the manager at the top of the hierarchy.

Learn more about versatility in leadership in this video At the same time, research shows that versatile leaders are the most effective leaders. You can read more about this correlation here.

Authenticity and the freedom to be yourself

As we work to develop leaders towards greater versatility, we often find that individual leader development is hindered or delayed by an unreflective and defensive relationship with the leader's own identity and perception of the relationship between authenticity and freedom.

For fear of losing authenticity, many leaders cling to an unreflective idea of "the freedom to be myself".

In the conversations we have with managers, this is expressed in phrases such as 'but I also have to be able to be myself in it', 'that's how I am, and then you have to take it or leave it', 'but I also have to be true to myself - it's no use if I'm just acting - they will notice' and 'I'm not a robot - they have to be able to feel who I am'.

When your preferences become a limiting factor

The statements are completely legitimate. As a leader, it's important to feel like you have yourself with you. However, the fear of losing yourself can also become a limiting factor for necessary development.

The problem is not that the manager has preferences, but that the manager's preferences are equated with the notion of a core personality that cannot be changed and must be given the freedom to unfold. This overlooks the freedom that comes from being able to freely choose the action that works best.


You can also read more about versatile leadership in our article: "Versatility: the future of leadership in a VUCA world".

offers certification in the development of agile leadership with the development tool The Leader's Versatility Index (LVI)

With a certification, you will be equipped to use LVI in development processes in your organization at the individual, group and organizational level.

Do what's necessary and get the job done efficiently

In order to lead with versatility and flexibly change your leadership style and focus depending on the situation, you need to develop a fundamental ability to learn how to do what is necessary - without losing your sense of integrity.

This means letting go of identifying with your own preferences and focusing on what is appropriate in the context, rather than what you are good at or like.

It's about the "freedom to be yourself" also including the freedom to use a wider repertoire of actions without losing yourself.

As a leader, you must learn to develop preferences for, and let go of aversions to, both directive and supportive, strategic and operational leadership - and balance this against the demands and needs of the outside world. So that you take into account the values that are important to yourself, the organization and the other people involved, and thus solve the task effectively.

Learn more about balancing directive and supportive leadership styles in this video

The freedom to develop and grow - 4 questions you need to work on

As leaders and management consultants, one of the most important tasks is to soften the resistance to expanding your repertoire. One of the keys lies in nuancing the understanding of freedom.

Therefore, it's effective to ask yourself as a leader, or the leaders you work with, the following questions:

  • How does your idea of freedom to be yourself help you in leadership - and how does it prevent you from applying certain leadership styles that are also necessary?
  • What is it in you that is not free when impulses rule?
  • What would be possible if your preferences didn't determine your behavior?
  • How would mastering a larger repertoire of opposing actions give you more freedom in your job?

An effective way to get a more nuanced picture is to examine the ambiguous or negative aspects of your strengths - such as being supportive - that need to be toned down.

If you realize that supportive in its exaggerated form can also be clingy, manipulative and guilt-inducing, you can take a more neutral approach to the concept. This makes it easier to nuance your behavior and, for example, choose to make clear demands in situations where support 'tastes' a bit like clinging.

In short - the most important realization you can have as a leader - is the realization that your preferences, behaviors and preconceptions about yourself and the world are a limiting factor in solving your task when your context changes or when you are tasked with changing your context - which as a leader means all the time.

By answering the four questions, you are well on your way to creating the opportunity to feel the unfree aspect of preferences and to turn the desire for freedom from a limiting force to a motivation for change.

This article is a shortened and revised version ofa longer article published in Børsen, which you can read if you have a login.

More from the same category

Should we have a no-obligation dialog?

We can help with all types of leadership development, whether it's tailored development programs, courses, training, workshops, lectures or anything else. 

Get a call from an advisor

Get a call from an advisor

We're ready to help you. Simplyfill out the form and we'll call you back as soon as possible.

Event registration