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 therefore to do well now and do well in the future too. Amazon, Tesla are prominent examples.

Systems thinking enables a leader not only to see the big picture but very importantly to seek and explore the interconnections of parts that, handled rightly, can result to creativity and differentiation for the firm. McKinsey’s 7S framework, Porter Value Chain, the Viable System Model are examples of established management tools predicated on this systems approach.

And can the two go together?

I would argue that ambidexterity does not cover the benefits of systems thinking, nor systems thinking covers the benefits of ambidexterity. And I see no problem or contradiction for a leader to have both.

Both, I believe, play a substantive role in leader’s extraordinary performance. Both these competencies require great knowledge and insight. And it is for this and other similar reasons that when we see them being exhibited, we know that behind them there must lie great leadership.


Panikos Sardos is the Managing Director of P&E Sardos Business Solutions Int., a management consulting firm that offers advisory services, coaching and training. Email: psardos@sardossolutions.com or telephone: +357 99640912, or visit our site at www.sardossolutions.com