Great leadership is like Columbus’ egg. We recognize it when we see it, but beforehand we don’t know how it can be done—vital ingredients remain not yet fully uncovered. In this short article, we present two competencies that impact greatly on the substance of leadership: Ambidexterity and Systems Thinking.

Ambidexterity is the leader’s ability to hold and serve two opposing ideas as for example to position the firm on the one hand to compete—exploit a current advantage—while on the other hand to see beyond the current affairs the future and prepare the business for it—explore new possibilities—or, in another more mundane case, to negotiate lower prices with suppliers while promoting valuable long-term relationships with them.

Systems thinking is a leader’s ability to see, beyond the individual parts, the whole and appreciate the role that linkages among the parts play–they can carry strength from one part to another, enriching each part and overall producing a system that is in many ways more than that that was composed of its initial parts. Information is seen as the lifeblood of the system, for it is through the exchange of information over the links between the parts that the system comes to life.

And it is the leader’s job to make these parts and links strong and to ensure that the information exchange is happening in a positive, reinforcing way (culture). Further, because the org system is open to events and influences from the outside environment, it is the role of the leader to listen to and act catalytically to turn them to the firm’s favor.

But does a leader need to have both?

Ambidexterity enables a leader to see the future but without losing sight of the needs of the present, seeking [...]